The Washington Wizards appear to have solved their hole-digging slow starts now that speedy point guard Dee Brown and athletic center JaVale McGee start alongside All-Stars Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison and ironman DeShawn Stevenson.
Finishing games, however, remains a different story. Washington suffered yet another collapse, falling 103-91 Friday to the visiting Houston Rockets.
On Tuesday, the Wizards rallied to tie the Miami Heat with 90 seconds left but lost by five. Washington held a four-point lead over Atlanta on Wednesday with 1:05 left but sputtered and fell by three.
A nine-point lead wasn't enough for the Wizards on Friday, as Houston went on a 23-6 run to capture the victory.
"It's almost the same story for us," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "We played very hard, with a lot of passion, a lot of sincerity, and it came down to a team that made shots, had shot-makers to the highest level. They made shots, and we didn't."
The Wizards missed 11 shots in the final eight minutes of play, and Butler and Jamison combined for two points in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Houston caught fire.
Two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady became the Rockets' closer. With his team trailing 85-76 with 8:43 left, McGrady scored of 14 points of his team-high 20 points on 5-for-6 shooting - including four 3-pointers - to lead the comeback.
"In the fourth quarter, we decided to show up and play," the seven-time All-Star said. "We were knocking down perimeter shots. When you're knocking down shots, momentum transfers over to defense. We did a good job in the fourth quarter."
The defeat dropped the Wizards to an Eastern Conference-worst 1-9 - the franchise's worst start since 1966, when the then-Baltimore Bullets opened the year at 1-10.
"I know I keep saying this, but we're just not playing smart," said Jamison, who led the Wizards with a game-high 27 points and 10 rebounds. "We're not getting the ball where it needs to be at in the stretch, we've got guys kind of doing some things outside of themselves. It's just our learning curves now and we're going through some roadblocks, but we've just got to play smart the last five, six minutes of the game."
Andray Blatche had his best performance of the season. The fourth-year forward came off the bench to record 14 points, four rebounds and a block while frustrating Houston's Yao Ming for much of the game. But Butler, the only other Wizards player to score in double figures, mustered just 12 points.
The Rockets, meanwhile had five double-digit scorers. In addition to Yao's 18 points, Carl Landry and Aaron Brooks scored 19 and 18 points, respectively, off the bench. Ron Artest added 14 points and six assists.
The fourth-quarter collapse spoiled what had been a positive outing for the Wizards.
Making the second start of his career, McGee showed no jitters despite having to go toe-to-toe with Yao. McGee outleapt the six-time All-Star for the opening tip, raced down the court, caught a pass from Brown and scored on a drive to the hoop.
The rookie outworked Yao for a rebound on his first two trips down the court, and then sliced past him, caught a pass from Butler and threw down a two-handed jam.
McGee's teammates also attacked the basket, and as a result the Wizards scored 12 of their first 14 points in the paint. Washington shot 66.7 percent from the field in the first quarter while limiting the Rockets to 33.3 percent and forcing them into seven turnovers. The effort translated into a 29-17 Wizards lead heading into the second quarter.
Houston fought back, but the Wizards remained in front 50-49 at halftime and led 77-70 heading into the fourth. After a Washington lineup of reserves increased the lead to 85-76, Houston went on its McGrady-led tear.
"Over the last couple of games, it's just been the closing," Butler said. "We got quality shots, but tonight the shots didn't fall down the stretch. I had a couple looks that went in and out, and shots that nine times out of 10 I would make and we fell a little short. But you just live with it, bite the bullet, get on the plane and head to New York, toss and turn a little bit and then get ready for the Knicks."