- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Fans of the Washington Wizards booed Juwan Howard long and loud when he turned up at MCI Center last night.

Oddly, however, they didn’t boo the Wizards, who certainly deserved raspberries after losing to the bad and depleted Houston Rockets 123-11 before 14,883.

The Wizards (12-17) have lost three straight for the fourth time this season, mostly because of a defense that has become invisible. In perhaps its worst defensive effort of the season, Washington allowed the Rockets to better their scoring average by nearly 36 points — without All-Star center Yao Ming.

“We are defensively challenged, and we’ve got to continue to work at it,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said, stating the obvious. “We’ve got to step our games up. No question about that.”

If they don’t and continue to play the way they have on defense, a free fall seems inevitable for the Wizards, who gave up a season-high 128 points to Miami in their previous game.

The win was the first in six games for the Rockets, who during that span averaged just 84 points and made just 37 percent of their field goals without Yao, who underwent foot surgery last month.

With Tracy McGrady matching his season high with 38 points and Howard ignoring the boos to hit 10 of 11 shots after missing his first three and finishing with 24 points, the Rockets (11-18) looked like a finely oiled offensive machine.

“After I missed my first three, the boos got really loud, but I stayed positive,” said Howard, who was hooted frequently during his seven-year stint in Washington. “[When] I played here, the boos didn’t help at all — they had you second-guessing your ability. It was frustrating, but that was a long time ago.”

Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards with 44 points, the fifth time he has topped 40 this season. They also got 20 from Caron Butler and 17 from Antawn Jamison. However, Brendan Haywood and Jared Jeffries combined for just three points and seven rebounds.

Afterward, Arenas voiced his frustration over another wasted performance.

“We just have to play hard,” Arenas said. “I don’t think we’re playing hard enough. They wanted it more than we did. We have to come out and play like we’re underdogs. I mean, we’re in 10th place [in the Eastern Conference]. It’s not like we’re Detroit or anything like that. We need to be coming out here playing hard.”

With a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter, the Rockets led by 26 points. After averaging just 87.6 points a game for the season, they had 89 by the end of the third.

The Wizards did mount a comeback in the fourth quarter, drawing within 109-101 on Arenas’ 3-pointer with 3:32 left. But the Rockets drained a batch of jumpers down the stretch, the most lethal by Rafer Alston to push the lead to 114-103 with 2:34 remaining.

The Rockets scored 34 points in the fourth quarter, offsetting the 41 the Wizards put up. For the game, they made nine of 17 from behind the 3-point line.

Alston, playing just his 10th game, posted his first double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 assists.

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