PHOENIX -- There was no way the Washington Bullets were suppose to compete last night. Not with four of their starters out of the lineup, going against the league's hottest team in the Phoenix Suns.
If it's any consolation, the Bullets were at least able to leave the America West Arena with their heads held high. But they still came away with their sixth straight loss, 113-102, to the Suns.
Yes, it was a good effort considering the Bullets played without Chris Webber (bruised right eye), Kevin Duckworth (sore Achilles), Rex Chapman (sore groin muscle) and Don MacLean (knee tendinitis). That's 62.5 points and 26.9 rebounds a game. Gone.
Still the Bullets managed one of their most balanced efforts of the season, with Juwan Howard's 22 points (and 10 rebounds) leading five players in double figures. Former Coppin State star Larry Stewart, who had not played the previous four games, was pressed into action and came through with an 18-point, eight-rebound effort.
But the end result was the 13th loss in the past 15 games for the Bullets (6-14).
"You have to be careful not to con yourself," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "This game is about winning, not about playing it close."
Phoenix knows what the game's about, winning its seventh straight, improving to 12-0 at home and winning its 23rd straight at America West Arena. It was the 14th straight win for the Suns over the Bullets.
Although the Bullets demonstrated a balanced offense, there was no balance in free throws last night. Phoenix shot 44 free throws to Washington's 17. The superstars were getting the foul calls, the no-name fill-ins from the Bullets weren't.
"It's been awhile since I've seen numbers that different," Scott Skiles, with 16 points and 13 assists, said after looking at the stat sheet. "We played hard. For the most part, we played well. We just didn't get to the foul line."
And yet the Bullets were able to cut a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to six after Howard's layup with 2:04 left. The Bullets got back in the game on the strength of their three-point shooting, hitting four of seven threes in the fourth quarter.
Mitchell Butler (13 points) had three of them, Skiles the other. But in the end the Suns had too much depth. Seven players scored in double figures for Phoenix, led by Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Danny Manning with 19 apiece.
One can see why the Suns are the second-highest scoring team in the league, when they can bring guys like Johnson (12 assists), Manning, Dan Majerle (10 points) and Wayman Tisdale (nine points) off the bench. Their 18-5 record is the best in the league.
"We didn't particularly play good defense," Phoenix coach Paul Westphal said. "We had a chance to crack it open and never really did. But we had a good cushion and all the guys that played did good enough."
For Barkley, who added 13 rebounds to his 19 points, it was an evening of disinterest. It showed on the court, and he admitted as much afterward.
"Obviously, it was tough to get motivated against them," Barkley said, admitting that not facing Webber took the edge off his game. "I like playing against Chris. He's a good player."
Last night he was a spectator, wearing a patch over his right eye, which was scratched in Saturday's loss to Minnesota. Lynam knew yesterday morning he'd have to go without Webber, who is questionable for tonight's game at Sacramento.
But with Webber gone, both Howard and Stewart shined. Howard, making his second start, recorded his fourth double-double of the season. He hit 10 of 16 shots in 38 minutes.
"Howard has played real hard, considering all the circumstances," Lynam said, referring to all the injuries.
Circumstances of too many forwards have kept Stewart on the bench all season. A starter two seasons ago before injuries knocked him out of most of last season, Stewart was leading the team in DNP-CD (Did not play -- coaches decision), recording 11 going into last night.
But Stewart played, and played well. He was active in a season-high 36 minutes, hitting eight of 15 shots.
"That was by far the best we have gotten from Stewart," Lynam said. "He gave us a big, big boost. He was active around the basket and he kept balls alive. He did a good job."
But probably not good enough to keep him from returning to the bench once the regulars return.
"It's been very tough sitting, but those are the breaks of the game," Stewart said. "You're going to have injuries, you'll have guys miss games. You have to be patient and keep working hard in practice."
Last night's effort would have been good enough to beat many teams in the NBA.
"It was a great effort," said Calbert Cheaney, who had 18 points and six assists. "Everything was going great."
But it wasn't good enough against the Suns, who have too much firepower.
"You have to go back to Los Angeles and showtime to find a team like that," Butler said of the Suns. "They can literally go 12 deep, and all 12 would be able to contribute."
NOTES: There's a chance Chapman can play tonight. He worked out with Kenny Walker in the auxiliary gym and said his groin muscle injury is improving. . . . Webber was hit with a technical after Howard fouled out with 50.2 seconds left.
Opponent: Sacramento Kings
Site: Arco Arena, Sacramento, Calif.
TV/Radio: HTS/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: An NBA doormat for years, Sacramento is a surprising 11-10, although it has dropped its last two going into tonight. The Kings can attribute their turnaround to defense, standing eighth in the league in points allowed (97.9 ppg) going into last night. Washington has lost three straight to Sacramento.