The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
The 2019-20 NBA schedule was only one week old when the Rockets and Wizards met for the silliest game of the season. On the last Wednesday of October, as more of the sporting public paid attention to Game 7 of the World Series, Houston won a 159-158 thriller that served as an exaggerated caricature of every modern NBA trend.
The league has more points per game in 2019-20 than in any season since 1970-71; here were 317 total points, the most ever in a one-point game. The league has more 3-pointers, both made and attempted, than ever before; here were a combined 43 made 3s on 90 attempts, good for a 48 percent success rate. And the league has more outstanding individual performances than ever before; here were James Harden, who entered the pandemic period with the league lead in points per game, scoring 59 points on 32 shots, and Bradley Beal, who ranked second, scoring 46 points on 20 attempts.
Consider some of the statistical feats from the Wizards in this game, as an example of its absurdity. They set a franchise record for effective field goal percentage in a single game (73.6 percent). Four players came off the bench, and all four reached double figures in points. Every single Wizard who appeared in the game shot at least 50 percent from the field.
And yet the Wizards still lost. No team in NBA history had scored more points in a nonovertime losing effort. (The 1990-91 Nuggets, a complete statistical anomaly in their own right, equaled the Wizards with a 162-158 loss to Golden State.)
Even in a league that has undergone drastic stylistic changes in recent seasons, there is a certain expectation to a typical NBA game. Most teams will score in the 100-120 range in any given contest—this season, for instance, had eight games that ended 113-104; seven that ended 109-106; and six each that ended 117-111, 113-109, 111-104, and 110-102. But 159-158 is unique, an example of NBA “scorigami” that had never been achieved before the Rockets and Wizards met in D.C. that October night.
Here’s how the game unfolded. The Wizards led by one at halftime, after Beal sank a buzzer-beating layup to end the half. The third quarter became the Harden show: The former MVP scored 21 points in the frame, shooting 7-for-10 from the field (including 2-for-4 from distance) and making all five free throws. But the rest of the Rockets struggled in the quarter, while on the other end of the floor, Beal and Davis Bertans each made three 3-pointers to increase the Wizards’ lead to six.
Bertans was not well known to the casual NBA fan at this point, just a week into his Wizards career after three seasons as a role player for the Spurs. But he’d scored 23 points and made all seven of his shots (including five 3s) in the preceding game, and he scored 21 points on six triples against the Rockets that night, catalyzing a breakout season in which he ranked in the top 10 in the league in both 3-point makes and percentage. His shot chart against Houston was a thing of sabermetric beauty—all knockdown jumpers from the perimeter, save one make at the hoop. Daryl Morey must have been filled with a powerful combination of frustration and envy.
Thanks to Beal, Bertans, and other Washington sharpshooters, the Wizards added to their lead. A minute and change into the fourth quarter, the gap had grown to 12 after a pair of Troy Brown 3-pointers. And Washington kept the lead for a while—with just 4:27 remaining, they still led by double digits.
But if any modern team was built to lose a large lead quickly, it was the 2019-20 Wizards. If this specific Rockets-Wizards game represented a loony caricature of the high-scoring season, Washington was the team version. Absent John Wall, Otto Porter, and all the other non-Beal members of the perennial playoff teams from last decade, they were a surprisingly competent offensive group. It wasn’t just Beal shouldering the load: Eight different Wizards averaged double-digit points per game, and Troy Brown (9.7) and Moe Wagner (9.5) rounded up to 10 as well.
Yet the Wizards were even more extreme on the defensive end, in the wrong direction. They were undefeated when they kept an opponent below 100 points. Unfortunately for them, they managed that feat only four times all season—the same number of times they allowed 150 points or more. Washington played seven games this season with at least 130 points scored and allowed; it combined the league’s fifth-fastest pace with its worst defensive efficiency. From all around the court, Wizards opponents shot like they would unguarded, in a practice gym: 66 percent in the restricted area (third highest in the league), 46 percent from the close midrange (highest), 38 percent on 3s (fourth highest).
More players than just Harden feasted on a lackadaisical Wizards defense suffused with young players and poor rim protectors. In two meetings against the Bucks, the Wizards allowed Khris Middleton to score 51 and 40 points; they let Trae Young drop 45, along with 14 assists, in a meeting in January.
Back in October, even though a staggering offensive performance pushed them to an 11-point lead with just a handful of minutes remaining, the defense still resembled a sieve. Clint Capela completed dunk after alley-oop dunk unencumbered.
Meanwhile, Harden enjoyed a consistently open runway to the basket, as 31 of his 32 shots came at the rim or behind the 3-point line. The one exception came on this midrange make, when he nearly caused defender Isaac Bonga to topple over with a hesitation dribble followed by a stepback.
So with less than five minutes left, the Rockets had plenty of time to close the gap. Russell Westbrook pulled up from 3 after tracking down a loose ball. Then Harden beat overmatched rookie Rui Hachimura with a stepback for a 3 of his own. The Wizards went cold—in this game, two missed shots in a row qualified as a cold spell—while Harden made four free throws and Westbrook cut the lead to two with a putback. The final minute approached, and then the game truly hit warp speed.
Eric Gordon—who took 13 shots in this game, all 3s—made a 3-pointer after the Wizards trapped Harden; Rockets up one. Beal drove and converted an and-1 layup and the ensuing free throw; Wizards back up two. Westbrook did the same on the other end; Rockets back up one. After a Wizards turnover and two Rockets free throws, Houston led by three; then Beal pumped and double-clutched on the 3-point line and drew a shooting foul. He sank all three free throws, and the score knotted at 158.
The Rockets didn’t call timeout and pushed the ball up the court, and quickly found Harden matched up against Bonga at the top of the key. Poor Bonga, who was just 19 years old at the time, could not stick in front of the league’s greatest isolation scorer. A hesitation move and one hard dribble were enough to draw contact—and the superstar receives that call every time, despite Bonga’s protests to the contrary.
Harden made the first free throw and missed the second, but Hachimura couldn’t even launch a shot after grabbing the rebound; the buzzer sounded and Houston escaped with the unprecedented win. And while the two teams embarked on separate journeys over the months to come—Houston on a rollicking ride, eventually leading to a small-ball philosophy taken to the extreme; Washington on a high-scoring adventure with less impressive results—they would never cross paths again. The rematch scheduled for Houston was cancelled, or at least postponed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the 2019-20 Rockets and 2019-20 Wizards could meet only once, they at least enjoyed every last second, and every last point, while they had the chance.