INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Washington Bullets wanted a chance to win a game, they certainly had one last night. They played impressive defense in the fourth quarter, holding the Indiana Pacers to two field goals and nine points. They cut a 20-point second-half deficit to three, and had four opportunities to get closer.
But in the end, the result was the same as its been for much of the last month -- the Bullets were losers, 94-90, before a crowd of 15,975 at Market Square Arena.
For the Bullets, the horrendous stretch of basketball continues. Five straight losses, 13 in 14 games, a 7-21 overall record -- and no relief in sight.
Reggie Miller scored 20 points and Rik Smits added 18 to lead the Pacers.
The Bullets had fallen behind by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, and entered the final 12 minutes trailing, 85-68. But Washington limited the Pacers to two field goals over the first nine minutes of the final period, and began chipping away at the lead.
Still, with just under four minutes left a free throw by Derrick McKey gave the Pacers a 93-83 lead.
Skiles then hit a three-pointer, Howard a jumper over Smits, and Calbert Cheaney a driving layup. Cheaney's shot, with 2:03 left, had the Bullets within 93-90.
Washington had its opportunities to get closer. After Skiles stripped Mark Jackson, Mitchell Butler's layup attempt at the other end was partially blocked by Smits. Another defensive stop resulted in a missed jumper by Skiles. And after Smits missed two free throws, Gheorghe Muresan was wide open for a short baseline jumper -- and missed.
That was it. McKey hit one of two free throws with 16.4 seconds left for a 94-90 Indiana lead, and the Bullets simply ran out of chances.
By halftime, the Bullets had survived a 22-4 run by the Pacers at the start of the second quarter, and a 16-point deficit to make it a respectable 62-53 at the half.
Even though the Pacers were a game away from winning the Eastern Conference final last season, this was a game where the FTC Bullets were facing some favorable matchups. Indiana's backcourt of Jackson and Reggie Miller is not extremely swift.
Little separated the teams at the start. Howard, coming off a subpar 10-point, six-rebound game in Tuesday's loss to Seattle, began the night by hitting his first four shots. As a team, the Bullets hit eight of their first 10, and after Howard's foul-line jumper with 6:25 left in the first quarter Washington led 16-15.
Then Skiles scored the next seven for Washington -- even blowing by Jackson off the dribble on one play. When Skiles hit a jumper with 4:48 left the Bullets had their biggest lead of the half, 23-19. By the end of the quarter the Bullets, behind nine points from Howard and seven from Skiles, had a 30-28 lead.
Almost nightly the Bullets are haunted by one bad stretch of basketball, and on this night that stretch would come at the start of the second quarter. Over the first 2:33 Indiana started with a 12-0 run, taking a 40-30 lead after a jumper by Smits with 9:50 left.
Skiles ended the run with two free throws, but in all the Pacers -- mostly without Miller -- outscored the Bullets, 22-4, and limited Washington to just one field goal over the first six minutes. Two free throws by Dale Davis with 6:05 left the Pacers gave the Pacers their largest lead of the half, 50-34.
Cheaney, who enjoys a cult-like following from the fans who remember his Indiana University days, had a forgettable first half. Two quick fouls limited him to just three minutes in the first quarter. But his jumper started the Bullets on a 9-0 run that, after Tucker converted a three-point play with 4:31 left, had Washington within 50-43 with 4:31 left.
The Bullets would get as close as 58-53 after two free throws by Howard with 1:20 left and by halftime they were within a respectable 62-53 -- and seemingly survived Indiana's run. But they would have to go the remainder of the night without Kevin Duckworth who, after playing just nine first-half minutes, spent the better part of the final three quarters with his left shoe off as he was apparently bothered by his sore Achilles' heel.