HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets are mad at themselves, the referees, the NBA and, probably, the world.
In the game, James Harden had a nearly flawless offensive performance with 40 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and four steals.
But what will be remembered is Dwight Howard's ejection and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff's going off on the refs. What will also be remembered is that Harden had a chance to win the game but missed a layup, and Josh Smith's open put-back then fell short of the rim.
It didn’t matter that Jared Dudley told CSN Mid-Atlantic he shoved Harden in the back on the final shot or that Smith said of his miss, “It was a tough angle.”
Sure, the referees let an MMA fight take place between Nene Hilario and Howard. Yes, the Wizards missed five layups in the fourth quarter and attempted a staggering 53 uncontested shots against the Rockets. Despite all that, Houston should have won this game.
The Rockets are back to .500, but there is little confidence outside the locker room that this team can forge its way from the bottom of the playoff seedings to the middle of the pack.
“It is what it is,” Trevor Ariza said. “This is our journey this year. There are a couple of things that we have to overcome, but again, never disappointed. Just gotta go and work on some things.”
Working on things has been a common theme for the Rockets, but positive results are lacking. When Howard lost his composure and was ejected with 8:08 remaining in the game, the Rockets didn’t back down.
Harden took over with a calming presence and showed everyone why he is one of the top players in this league. The Rockets trailed 102-99 after Nene and Howard's UFC tilt, but then basketball took over, and Harden made that basketball beautiful. He contributed to the next 13 points, either by scoring or an assist, as the Rockets took a 113-107 lead with 4:44 left.
After Harden’s 3 over Bradley Beal gave the Rockets that lead, Harden let out a scream at midcourt and punched Clint Capela in the chest as the Toyota Center crowd went crazy. At that stage, the Rockets figured they could close the game.
But Wizards coach Randy Wittman went to Hack-A-Capela, which hurt the home team. Capela missed three of four foul shots. When John Wall nailed a 3, the game was tied with 2:27 to play.
Harden scored five points in the stretch run via a drive and two free throws. But nobody else helped. Jason Terry missed two wide-open jumpers, Ariza missed a pullup jumper, and two missed layups less than five feet from the rim ended things.
“It was a good drive,” Smith said of Harden’s attempt. "We just came up short."
The Rockets have lost their past two games and have been at odds with the referees in both. On Friday in Oklahoma City, Howard was pulled and pushed, and he made his frustrations apparent. He didn’t do anything to warrant an ejection in that loss.
On Saturday, Howard couldn’t stand the holding and opponents' jumping on his back and shoulders. It became too much, and he voiced his opinion to the three-man crew who had seen enough.
Bickerstaff felt the same way and decided to fight for his players. All of them agreed with his evaluations of the referees and felt his anger wasn't misplaced.
“Rightfully so,” Smith said. “The last two games have been kind of tough for this ballclub. We felt like we haven’t gotten a fair whistle, but we just got to move forward and focus on having a must-win game on Tuesday.”