LANDOVER -- At one time, the Washington Bullets thought o making last night's game with the lowly Dallas Mavericks "guaranteed victory night," providing free tickets for everyone in attendance if they lost.
Fortunately for the Bullets, the idea was vetoed, saving them any added embarrassment as the 7-59 Mavericks, minus three starters, won only their second road game of the season, 101-98.
Rookie guard Jim Jackson, who finally agreed to a six-year, $19 million contract on March 4, has given the Mavericks instant respectability.
The lottery pick from Ohio State scored a career-high 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out seven assists in leading Dallas to its third win in its last five games. It was also only the second road victory for Dallas in 33 attempts.
Losing to the NBA's worst team was simply unacceptable to the Capital Centre crowd of 6,241, the third smallest of the year.
The fans spent most of the night hooting the Bullets' lackluster effort. And the catcalls reached a crescendo in the final minutes when veteran forward Harvey Grant made only one of six free throws, nullifying any chance of overtaking the Mavericks.
Grant's last two misses came with seven seconds left and Dallas leading, 100-98. Jackson made one of two free throws with 2.5 seconds remaining, and LaBradford Smith's desperate three-point attempt banged off the rim at the buzzer.
"I understand the boos," said Grant, the Bullets' co-captain. "But it wasn't as though I wasn't trying. These aren't the first free throws I missed, and they won't be the last. I just know we're a better team than Dallas, and for us to lose to them is embarrassing."
But Grant's errant free throws shouldn't get all the blame for the loss.
"We didn't lose this game in the last two minutes," said rookie forward Tom Gugliotta. "We lost this with our poor effort in the first 46 minutes. We had them believing they're as good as anybody."
It was all too typical of the Bullets, who upset Cleveland and New Jersey in recent games, but have consistently played uninspired ball against other lottery-bound teams.
"As tight and active as we were defensively against the Nets on Monday, that's how soft and nonchalant we were against Dallas tonight," said coach Wes Unseld.
With Jackson masterfully running the offense, the Mavericks had little difficulty penetrating the Bullets' interior defense. Rookie center Sean Rooks, a solidly built, 6-foot-10, 250-pounder, was the prime target of Jackson's passes and responded with 22 points.
"We did a lot of post-up moves, a lot coming off screens," said Jackson, who was made an instant starter after signing his contract. "I felt comfortable shooting the ball tonight, and coming off picks. But in the second half, we went inside a lot to Rooks, and he stepped up big."
With Rooks scoring inside, and Jackson and recent additions Morlon Wiley and Tim Legler converting open perimeter shots, the Mavericks gained a 12-point lead (84-72) in the third quarter and were never overtaken.
"Because we lack size inside, we're one of the only teams in the league that has to double-down against guys like Rooks and [7-foot] Donald Hodge," noted Unseld. "And when we did that, we didn't do a good job rotating to stop them from hitting outside."
The Bullets kept it close in the first half when Rex Chapman scored 18 of his team-high 22 points, hitting his first seven shots.
But Chapman, who spent most of last month on the injured list and recently received threats of bodily harm from former football player Lewis Billups, now in custody in Kentucky, played little in the second half.
"Rex has missed so many games, when he's out there, we don't have any continuity with our offense," explained Unseld.
But there was no one else ready to fill the scoring slack last night as the Bullets shot 42 percent from the field to go along with their 11 missed free throws.
"Anyone who has watched us perform all season can't consider this an upset," said Unseld. "I warned my guys at shoot-around that Dallas was quite capable of beating us. We're not good enough to take anyone for granted."