WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards remain stuck on their unwanted roller coaster ride of a season. Hard to believe, but facing the Houston Rockets, owners of the second-best record in the Western Conference, might help their cause at least for one game.
This week, the Wizards (19-16) continued their trend of rising up against contenders and laying down against those struggling.
There was the rousing road victory over the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day. There was the puzzling 113-99 loss at Atlanta on Wednesday night against a Hawks team with the league's worst record.
"We talk about it," Wizards guard John Wall said. "We say when we play these teams that are not above .500 or not one of the great teams, we go out there playing for stats. It's simple as that. We can see it. I think we all can see it when we play."
The Rockets (25-8) are a true contender, but they have lost four in a row with Chris Paul and other key players injured. The latest defeat, a 99-98 road loss against the Boston Celtics on Thursday, featured Houston blowing a 26-point lead.
James Harden had 33 points and 10 assists, but he committed two turnovers inside the final eight seconds. Boston's Al Horford hit the go-ahead basket with 3.7 seconds left.
Short-handed or not, Houston is formidable. The Rockets produced a 14-game winning streak immediately preceding their four-game skid. Playing a challenging opponent works for Washington, which is 10-6 against teams above .500 but 9-10 against foes with losing records.
Six Wizards scored in double figures Wednesday, and Washington held comfortable leads at times, but Atlanta dominated the fourth quarter 35-23. The Hawks won the battle of the boards 53-40.
"We couldn't get any stops, we were taking bad shots, and then we gave them hope," Washington coach Scott Brooks said. "Once that happened, we couldn't turn it off. They were making shots. They were playing at a higher speed than us. We've got to figure it out."
Bradley Beal paced the Wizards with 20 points against Atlanta, while Wall had 10 points and 11 assists. Solid stats in general, but Washington's foundation on both ends of the court is somewhat shaky with its uneven outings.
"We're too selfish," Beal said. "Offense and defense, plain and simple."
The Wizards certainly need a sharp defensive effort against a Houston team that is averaging 114.6 points per game, which ranks second in the NBA, and firing a league-high 42.9 3-point attempts per game. Washington holds opponents to a league-low 33.9 shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
Holding Harden, the NBA's leading scorer, in check will not be easy regardless. Houston's Eric Gordon added 24 points against Boston, and the Rockets sank 14 3-pointers in the loss.
Two charge calls against Harden were crucial to the result, but Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said of the refs' decisions, "It doesn't really matter. I'm worried more about the 24 points (the lead at the half) we gave up, that's what I worry about."
Paul missed his third consecutive game after sustaining a strained left groin on Dec. 20 against the Los Angeles Lakers. The All-Star point guard's status for the Washington game was uncertain.
Clint Capela, Houston's primary rim protector, sat out for the third time in five games with multiple injuries including a right orbital fracture.
Missing that pair along with forward Luc Mbah a Moute (right shoulder dislocation) truly hampered Houston's defense. The Rockets allowed an average of 121 points per games in the three losses before facing Boston. They struggled getting stops late against the Celtics.
"One of the reasons we had so much success last year was how (Capela) improved from the year before to last year, and we made another jump this year because of how he improved from last year," D'Antoni said. "He's been a key. He has his fingerprints on almost everything we do offensively and defensively as far as the improvement."
Attempting to bolster the team depth and not have Trevor Ariza play 40 minutes every game, Houston signed veteran forward Gerald Green to a non-guaranteed contract Thursday. Green made his debut Thursday against his former team, playing 11 scoreless minutes.
"We have a lot of veterans here. I just want to bring a lot of energy on both ends of the floor and play my game," Green said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "It's been crazy, but at the end of the day, it's basketball."
The Rockets swept the two-game series from the Wizards last season, including a 114-106 win in Washington on Nov. 7.
Wizards hope to play up to competition vs. Rockets