LANDOVER -- On a scale of one to 10, the Washington Bullets' 92-91 loss last night to the Orlando Magic and rookie sensation Shaquille O'Neal has to rank as a tough 10 -- their most frustrating of the season.
It took a 27-foot, three-point bank shot by Nick Anderson with 1.8 seconds left and a final defensive save by Anderson to outlast a Bullets team reduced to eight players after starting center Pervis Ellison sprained his left knee in the first quarter.
"They outplayed us in every area," Magic coach Matt Goukas said. "As short-handed as they were, they did everything but actually win the game."
For the Bullets, the abrupt ending was all too familiar.
"I think someone has a curse on us," said second-year guard LaBradford Smith, who led the Bullets with 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and had five assists.
Said rookie forward Tom Gugliotta (21 points, 16 rebounds): "That was the fourth time this season we lost on a last-second desperation shot.
"At least before the shots were clean. To lose on a 30-foot bank shot is pure luck. I'm not going to sleep well tonight."
Gugliotta and the rest of the Bullets might have enjoyed a blissful sleep if Michael Adams, an 86 percent free-throw shooter, had converted both of his free throws after being fouled by Anderson with 4.4 seconds left.
But Adams made only one of two, giving the Magic a chance to tie or win it.
Surprisingly, the Magic chose to go to Anderson, who had hit only five of his first 14 shots, rather than down low to O'Neal (28 points, 11 rebounds).
"It was a simple play to get Nick open," Goukas said. "We figured we might catch the Bullets switching off. I told Nick, if the 'three' is there, take it. If they give you room, get a closer shot."
Anderson thrives in such situations. Twice this season, against the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, the former Illinois star forced overtimes by hitting last-second three-point shots, and the Magic went on to win both games.
"We keep running the same play, and it keeps working," Anderson said, laughing. "Why fool with success?"
Then it was Anderson to the rescue on the defensive end of the floor.
The Bullets still had enough time left for a final shot.
Wes Unseld went to his playbook for a pick play that has worked to perfection every time, except for making the shot.
And so it would be again. Adams set a pick to momentarily free Gugliotta under the basket. Forward Larry Stewart, however, had to lob the pass over 7-foot-1 O'Neal. His pass was just far enough off mark for Anderson to tip it away from Gugliotta, who had leaped in anticipation of an alley-oop pass.
"Everything happened like it was in slow-motion," Gugliotta said. "It was just like living a nightmare."
Wasted in this latest setback were inspired efforts by Gugliotta, Smith, Adams (20 points, nine assists) and especially reserve center Charles Jones, who grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked three shots in relief of Ellison.
Jones, giving away at least 4 inches and 65 pounds to O'Neal, did his best to neutralize the Wunderkind.
"Charles played him as well as you can," Unseld said.
"The kid is very talented. But right now they're letting him get away with a lot. He jumps into his man, and he travels quite a bit. He's so talented, he doesn't need that much of an edge."
Had the Bullets shot better in the third quarter, when they converted nine of 31 shots and blew countless layups, they would not have had to agonize over Anderson's three-point shot.
Especially when he didn't even yell, "Bank!"
With just more than four minutes left in the first quarter, Ellison banged knees with Orlando's Anderson and crashed to the floor. After a timeout, Ellison limped to the dressing room with support from trainer John Lally.
With Jones replacing Ellison at center, the Bullets played Orlando tough the remainder of the quarter, which ended with the Magic leading, 29-25.
O'Neal ended the second quarter with a three-point play, leaving Washington with a 47-44 halftime advantage. After one half, O'Neal had 17 points, and Gugliotta led the Bullets with 14 points and six rebounds.
After three quarters, Orlando was clinging to a 71-68 lead. The Bullets made nine of 31 shots in the period for 29 percent.
But Washington battled back. Gugliotta scored underneath, and Adams beat Skiles on a baseline move to pull within a basket.
The Bullets pulled ahead on Gugliotta's tap, and, after Jones rejected a drive by Royal, Johnson scored on a fast-break layup for 90-87 lead with 77 seconds left.
Off until Wednesday, the Bullets probably will have to add another player before playing the Heat in Miami. Ellison has a strained medial collateral ligament and will be re-examined Monday by team doctor Richard Grossman.
The Bullets are already without forward Harvey Grant (calf) and guards Doug Overton (thumb) and Rex Chapman (ankle).
Grant is listed as questionable for Wednesday.