LANDOVER -- This was the game the Washington Bullets figured to win, the game that would end the long losing streak. The Detroit Pistons seemed like ideal victims, winners of just one of their previous 10 games in the team's worst start since the 1980-81 season.
But with Pistons guard Joe Dumars scoring 16 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter, Detroit held off the Bullets, 97-95, before 8,143 at USAir Arena.
The sparse crowd witnessed a late comeback by the Bullets, who rallied after falling behind 95-89 with 1:40 left after a three-pointer by Dumars. But with a chance to tie the game with four seconds left, Rex Chapman let go a running jumper that bounced off the back rim and into the hands of Detroit's Terry Mills, whose season-high 17th and final rebound secured the outcome.
The loss was Washington's ninth in a row, matching the team's longest losing streak of last season. The Bullets fell to 6-15 and remain winless in December. Detroit, which had lost earlier this season to the Bullets, improved to 7-13.
"We should have beaten them here," said Chapman, who scored 17. "We're looking for a break, but not a break on the last play. We put ourselves in that position. We lost the game."
Just as much as Dumars won it. In his eighth year still perhaps the best two-way guard in the league, Dumars hit six of 11 shots in the fourth quarter ranging from two three-pointers to a baseline jumper shot while fading behind the backboard. It was a clutch performance in a game in which he hit just three of 11 shots in the first half.
"We knew they would go to him," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said. "Joe Dumars is pretty unstoppable at times. He hit some very acrobatic shots."
After Dumars' three-pointer gave Detroit a 95-89 lead, Chapman answered with one of his own with 1:26 left. Dumars hit two free throws with 1:13 left but Bullets guard Michael Adams (13 points, 10 assists) hit a three-pointer from the right side to narrow the deficit to 97-95 with 32.4 seconds left.
Dumars then missed a jumper that gave the Bullets an opportunity to win or tie. Washington designed a final play for Chapman to roll into the lane, but his shot from eight feet was long.
"They're not going put you on the line [the Bullets shot a season-low 10 free throws], so you've got to take it strong," Chapman said. "I did. It just didn't fall."
Little fell for the Bullets in the second half, when the team shot 37.2 percent. Washington played well early, at one point leading 28-18 in the first quarter.
But Detroit scored the last 10 points of the quarter to tie the game and scored the last five points of the second quarter to enter the locker room trailing 51-50. Detroit took the lead for good by scoring the last five points of the third quarter.
"We didn't play the first three quarters," said Tom Gugliotta, who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "We can't continue to do that and then turn it on in the last few minutes. We don't have a guy like Joe Dumars who can take a game over. He hit some incredible shots."
The Bullets played the game without Pervis Ellison, who complained of soreness in his left knee and did not dress. Ellison, whose knee will be examined today, said he plans to play on Saturday against the Utah Jazz.
Ellison's return for last week's road trip, after he started the season on the injured list, was supposed to give the Bullets a boost. Instead Washington is 0-6 since his return and seems like a team that's losing confidence fast.
"You're concerned with that," Unseld said, when asked about team confidence. "But these are grown men and they should be professional. It's not about losing confidence; you just need to go out and play."
Someone playing more minutes than usual was center Kevin Duckworth, who was on the court a team-high 40 minutes. Duckworth, who on Wednesday spoke with Unseld about his role with the team, scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds. It was the first time he had played more than 40 minutes since the season opener.
But his extended role was of little help. The Bullets were hurt on the boards, getting out-rebounded 46-39 and allowing 17 offensive boards. Detroit, whose starters played 221 of a possible 240 minutes (each starter played at least 41 minutes), seemed to have the fresher legs -- particularly Dumars.
"Joe is stronger than any player we have in the fourth quarter," Detroit coach Don Chaney said. "He likes the pressure, and he picked our guys up."
Pickup is what the Bullets need.
"This is a losing streak that nobody wants to be in," Gugliotta said. "We have to end it."