WASHINGTON — For a team that entered the season with aspirations of winning 50 games and earning home-court advantage in the playoffs — the former now impossible, the likelihood of the latter fading quickly — John Wall's Washington Wizards sure are slumping down the stretch.
They can't even seem to run plays properly right after coach Randy Wittman draws them up during a timeout.
Losing for the fifth time in six games, which delayed their bid to secure a postseason berth, the Wizards were beaten 99-91 Sunday by the Houston Rockets, who got 24 points from James Harden, along with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes from Dwight Howard, appearing in his third game back from a right knee injury.
The Wizards shot 29.2 percent in the first quarter, 38.7 percent for the game, and Wittman lamented afterward that there were basic problems when his team had the ball.
"We were running things that I've never seen before. We weren't focused on what we needed to do from an offensive standpoint," Wittman said, adding with a wry chuckle: "Coming out of timeouts, a guy doesn't even know he's supposed to catch the ball, and we turn it over."
"That's terrible," the point guard said.
Asked whether the players or Wittman were at fault, Wall answered: "I wouldn't put it on the coach, because he's doing a great job of drawing it up. ... Like he always says, if you don't know, you've got time before you walk on the court to ask again. So it's all on us as players."
The Wizards are fifth in the Eastern Conference and could have guaranteed themselves a place in the postseason with a victory. But they dropped 2 1/2 games behind No. 4 seed Toronto and, at 41-33 with eight games remaining, they can't wind up with 50 victories.
The Wizards also had a chance to clinch a playoff berth based on other teams' results later Sunday, but that didn't go their way, either.
"We show a sense of urgency one game, and another game, we take it off. To be where we want to be and go as far as we did last year, we have to turn it around or ... we'll be done quick," said Wall, who finished with 25 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
Houston entered the day third in the Western Conference, a half-game behind No. 2 Memphis, and the Rockets' biggest concern is having enough players ready to go in the playoffs.
"It's nice to win the games, but it would be really nice to get healthy. That's our biggest thing," said coach Kevin McHale, who noted that Howard will sit out Monday against Toronto in the second game of a back-to-back set, and also made a passing reference to Patrick Beverley perhaps missing the rest of the season.
"I'm not sure about Pat," McHale said. "Probably won't come back."
Corey Brewer scored 15 for Houston, including pairing with Pablo Prigioni for consecutive 3-pointers that pushed the lead back up to 85-75 with 8 minutes left after Washington had pulled within four.
Harden only made 7 of 20 shots, but went 9 for 10 at the foul line. He added six assists and one into-the-stands block of Bradley Beal's 3-point try with 25 seconds left.
"I was surprised he got up there. He's not known for blocking shots," Howard said. "That's what MVPs do."
Little-used reserve Otto Porter, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, had 15 points and six rebounds for the Wizards, replacing Paul Pierce, who shot 1 for 6 and had two points.
"He might not have his legs as much as we need," Wall said about Pierce, "so he might need to take a game or two off."
Rockets: Winning streak reached four games. ... Trevor Ariza, who left Washington after last season, contributed 13 points and eight rebounds.
Wizards: Three reserves were missing - Kris Humphries and Garrett Temple were sidelined with injuries, while DeJuan Blair was out for personal reasons.
Rockets: At Toronto on Monday.
Wizards: Host Philadelphia on Wednesday.
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