LANDOVER -- For a couple of seconds, Washington Bullets coach Jim Lynam pondered the question. His team is last in the Atlantic Division, and playing without four starters. And it had taken an Orlando Magic team that has the best record in the league into overtime.
A night to feel good, right?
"It all counts the same," was Lynam's response. "It's a loss."
It wasn't supposed to be close, but the Bullets made it that way before their eighth straight sellout crowd at the USAir Arena, only to lose to the Magic, 128-121.
On a night when Shaquille O'Neal was in foul trouble and eventually fouled out with 1:04 left -- his first disqualification of the year -- the Magic got big second halves from Nick Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway. Anderson finished with a season-high 35 points, Hardaway with 29 points and 11 assists and the Magic was fortunate to escape with a win.
O'Neal, the league's top scorer, had 28 points -- six in the second half -- and nine rebounds. He also had a great deal of difficulty against Gheorghe Muresan, scoring just six points while Washington's 7-foot-7 center was in the game.
"Juwan [Howard] and Gheorghe did a tremendous job," Lynam said of the pair, who both spent time guarding O'Neal. "We had a lot of people contribute, but it just wasn't enough."
Washington had its chances. With the Bullets trailing 114-113 with 22.9 seconds left, Calbert Cheaney (18 points) was on the line with a chance to give his team the lead. But he missed the first free throw, hit the second and -- after Hardaway missed a shot just before the buzzer -- the game went into overtime.
"We would have won," Cheaney said, "if I had only hit that free throw."
Once into overtime, it was all Magic. Hardaway scored and was fouled on a layup and converted the three-point play on Orlando's first possession.
Orlando would never trail in the overtime. Washington missed its first three three-point attempts, and wound up hitting just two of 11 shots in the extra five-minute session.
There were many bright spots for the Bullets, who led by as many as nine in the first half. Howard recovered from missing his first six shots to score a season-high 24 points, and grabbed 14 rebounds. Scott Skiles had 20 points and nine assists against his former teammates. And Muresan had season highs in points (16) and rebounds (11).
"I thought our chemistry was excellent," Cheaney said. "The way we started from the tip, I knew we were going to be in the game. We were scoring easily on them. They knew they were going to be in for a fight."
When O'Neal fouled out with 1:04 left in regulation and the Magic leading 114-110, the Bullets still were within reach.
"When Shaq went out I thought we had the chance to go out there and deliver the knockout blow," said Mitchell Butler, who came off the bench to score 18 points. "We just came up a little bit short."
That's because Anderson and Hardaway took over in the overtime, combining to score nine of the 14 points in the extra session. Hardaway was playing with a sore ham string that forced him to miss Orlando's last game.
"Obviously if we had our druthers, we would want [O'Neal] out of there," Skiles said. "But once he goes out, their lineup is awfully quick."
And Washington's lineup was awfully short in numbers, with just 10 players in uniform. Kevin Duckworth (sore Achilles' tendon) was in street clothes after playing limited minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday. Rex Chapman (sore groin muscle) missed the game and is definitely out tomorrow in Cleveland. And Don MacLean (tendinitis in both knees) and Chris Webber (separated shoulder) aren't on the active roster.
Which made the Bullets' effort last night even more impressive.
"I thought Jimmy and his team did a fantastic job," Orlando coach Brian Hill said. "They were very well prepared and they played hard. We gave up 65 points in the first half,which is way too many."
Lynam said it was just a loss, but the players wanted to take something out of last night's game.
"We're playing with a lot of heart and intensity," Butler said. "We can't worry about the fact that Chapman's hurt, Duckworth's hurt, and everyone's else. We played hard and were real feisty. Once the guys get back, we'll be tough."
But Skiles still wants to see the Bullets win some of these.
"It's just a loss, again," Skiles said. "We have to find a way to win games. We haven't done it.
"It doesn't matter if you come close and lose, or get beat by 50 and lose. You still lose."
NOTES: The Bullets blocked a season-high nine shots, with Jim McIlvaine blocking three in five minutes. Orlando matched a season high with 10 blocks, with O'Neal blocking five (also tying a season high). . . . Skiles 20 points were a season high, as were his 44 minutes. . . . Butler was three of 10 from the field, all three field goals coming from three-point range. He played 36 minutes. . . . Orlando had a season-high 37 assists.