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Bullets come up short, lose to Nuggets, 94-92

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANDOVER -- Washington Bullets guard Scott Skiles takes great pride in his free-throw shooting, and he should. He's third on the NBA's all-time list from the line.

So, after drawing contact on a three-point attempt with his team down three with four seconds left yesterday, the Bullets were in excellent shape.

"He's a guy who shoots 95 percent from the line," teammate Juwan Howard said. "I knew for a fact all three were going in."

But remember, just remember. These are the Bullets.

It seems like the only luck the Bullets have had this season has been bad. How else could you explain Skiles' missing two of three free throws and later Howard's missing a potentially game-tying three-footer at the buzzer that allowed the struggling Denver Nuggets to escape with a 94-92 win before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at the USAir Arena?

"It was a bizarre ending," said Bullets guard Calbert Cheaney.

Bizarre indeed for the Bullets, who lost their third straight and were swept in their two-game season series with the Nuggets.

Washington trailed by nine early in the fourth quarter, but defense got the Bullets back in the game. But it appeared over with 6.5 seconds left when Jalen Rose (nine points, 10 assists) hit two free throws that gave Denver a 94-91 lead.

Skiles, who had been out of the game since the midway point of the third quarter, checked in. And he took the inbounds pass and faked a three-pointer as Brian Williams ran at him. Williams nailed Skiles, who went to the line with a chance to tie.

"I noticed on watching our game tapes that, at the end of the quarter, guys were flying at me," Skiles said. "If they were going to fly at me, I was going to draw contact. It worked out great."

rTC Only to a point. Skiles, a 91.7 percent shooter from the line this season going into last night, was long on the first. He also missed the second, but made the third. There was almost a stunned silence in the arena.

"I just didn't make it," Skiles said. "I've made many, many big free throws in my career. My butt didn't get tight. I've just struggled lately from the line the last 10 games."

After Skiles' free throw cut the lead to 94-92, the Bullets had another chance when Chris Webber picked off the inbounds pass at halfcourt. Webber heaved a desperation shot that hit off the side of the backboard. The rebound came down to Howard, who was three feet from the basket -- and all alone -- with just over a second left. But Howard rushed the shot, missed, and the game was over.

"I shot the ball, and I really could have driven the ball to the hole," Howard said. "Chris, he just tried to put the ball up as quick as possible, and when the ball hit my hands, I did the same thing.

"But so much happened in the game," Howard said, "that you can't point out that one play."

Bullets coach Jim Lynam wasn't pointing out that play.

"I think there was something like 1.6 seconds left when he got the ball, but in a situation like that, Juwan doesn't have time to think, he just has to act on instinct," Lynam said. "In a game like that, it's difficult to focus on one play. There are seven plays we can discuss in the last 1:13."

It's all a moot point now, with the Nuggets winning behind huge performances from their tallest and shortest players. Dikembe Mutombo, an all-star this season, had 21 points and 13 rebounds. And Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who had 31 points off the bench in the first game in Denver, scored 23 points. During one stretch of 10 minutes, Abdul-Rauf had 16, hitting nine of 10 shots.

"The little guy went through a stretch where he was unconscious," Lynam said. "He killed us again, just like he did in Denver."

Denver was considered a team on the rise after upsetting the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of last year's playoffs. But it entered the game last night with a five-game losing streak, only to have the Bullets provide the remedy for its ills.

"We're glad to get away with a win," Nuggets coach Gene Littles said. "We've been coming up empty-handed in games like these."

The loss ruined a nice game by Cheaney, who led the Bullets with 27 points.

But it was another loss for the Bullets, this time in bizarre fashion.

"That's the way this thing has gone," Lynam said.

NOTES: Denver guard Robert Pack registered a did not play -- a coach's decision. There's speculation that Pack, a starter earlier this season and a key contributor during Denver's playoff run last season, could be moved before the trading deadline -- an offering that could draw the interest of the Bullets. . . . Over his last 10 games, Skiles is 25 of 34 from the line. He's missed 16 free throws all season, with nine misses coming over the last 10 games. . . . Rose, reunited for the second time this season with former Michigan teammates Webber and Howard, had eight of his 10 assists in the first half.

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