- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HOUSTON | The Washington Wizards were in a familiar situation Monday against the Houston Rockets. As was the case in the teams’ meeting Nov. 21, the Wizards led at the start of the fourth quarter.

But in that contest, a 14-point final quarter by star swingman Tracy McGrady demolished the Wizards’ hopes and handed them another defeat. It appeared Washington would endure more of the same Monday; after stumbling through the first three quarters, Houston surged and erased the Wizards’ lead.

But Washington weathered the Rockets’ charge this time and got the clutch plays it has lacked for much of this season in an 89-87 victory.

The Wizards squandered a 72-62 fourth-quarter lead thanks to a 13-4 Houston run led by forward Ron Artest. They battled back from a three-point deficit to reclaim the lead, then survived Houston’s last-second effort when center Yao Ming missed a turnaround jumper as time expired.

The win gave the 6-23 Wizards their first back-to-back wins of the season.

“We told guys we had to keep it simple, nothing fancy. We had to dig in, defend with your legs, defend with your body, defend with your heart - and I thought we did a good job,” interim coach Ed Tapscott said. “I told them at half, ‘Don’t think you have seen their best. Their best is yet to come.’ They played much better in the second half, and we had to defend it.”

Forward Antawn Jamison led Washington - which played without injured forward Caron Butler - with 30 points and 12 rebounds. Andray Blatche added 16 points and eight rebounds, and guards Nick Young and Mike James recorded 14 and 12 points.

Artest paced Houston with a team-high 20 points. With his team down 74-64, the former defensive player of the year scored seven straight points to cut the Wizards’ lead to 74-71. Teammate Aaron Brooks made one of two free throws, then Artest found guard Brent Barry for a 3-pointer with 9:06 left that put Houston up 75-74, their first lead of the second half.

After fighting from behind from that point, the Wizards took an 86-85 lead on a pair of free throws by Jamison with 3:11 left. After three scoreless exchanges, the Wizards extended the lead to 88-85 when DeShawn Stevenson nailed a fadeaway jumper with 1:12 remaining.

The Wizards led by two when Houston got the ball to Yao with 7.2 seconds left. The six-time All-Star faked to his left and then attempted a right-handed hook, but Blatche stood his ground and forced him to alter his shot enough for him to misfire. Dominic McGuire grabbed the rebound to seal the win.

“The coaches told me, ‘Get ready and don’t go for any pump-fakes.’ I was ready, contested the shot and Dominic got the rebound for us, which was real big,” Blatche said. “I didn’t know what he was going to do, but I just knew he wasn’t going to go through me.”

It was the Wizards’ second straight game without Butler, who leads the team in scoring at 21.0 points. Butler sprained his left ankle in the Wizards’ Christmas game at Cleveland and missed Saturday’s game against visiting Oklahoma City. He had hoped to return Monday, but he still experienced some pain, swelling and stiffness when he tested the ankle before the game.

“I advised him, ‘Don’t be a hero. We don’t want a two- or three-game thing to turn into a 10-game thing. So if it’s good, fine. If it’s not, get it healthy,’” Tapscott said.

Butler is scheduled to be re-evaluated before Tuesday’s game in New Orleans.

The Wizards overcame Butler’s absence early with a little help from the Rockets. Washington shot 34.8 percent from the field in the first but remained in contention because Houston shot 35 percent and clung to a 22-21 lead heading into the second.

While the Rockets continued their listless play in the second, the Wizards went on a 17-5 run to take a 38-27 lead with a little less than five minutes left before halftime.

Reserves Darius Songaila and Juan Dixon sparked the Wizards’ rally. Songaila scored the first four points of the surge; Dixon added a 3-pointer and a layup toward the end of the tear. The Rockets cut their deficit to six points briefly, but the Wizards closed the half on a 6-3 burst to lead 45-36.

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