LANDOVER -- When Washington Bullets forward Chris Webber was asked to explain what had just happened to his team, there was a long pause as he stared blankly into space.
"There's no way, there's no way, there's no way," Webber said slowly and deliberately when he finally did speak. "No way, not with the team that we played."
Webber was right. There was no way the Dallas Mavericks, 3-12 in their previous 15 games, should have beaten the Bullets. Not with point guard Jason Kidd in street clothes, having sprained his left ankle in the second quarter. Not with forward Jamal Mashburn being held in check -- he finished the game with eight points. Not trailing by 21 points midway through the third quarter.
But the Mavericks did come back, behind the second-half heroics of Jim Jackson, who scored 44 points as the Mavericks beat the Bullets, 102-97, before 16,053 at the USAir Arena.
Remember in December when Webber complained after the home fans booed the team? Well, the Bullets were lucky that was the only way the fans vented their frustration last night.
"Discouraging, discouraging," said coach Jim Lynam. "Yeah, I think you would have to say this is our worst loss of the season."
Even more discouraging is to get picked apart by one player, which is what Jackson did. Jackson scored 14 points in the first half, but was scoreless for the first half of the third quarter.
But over the final 5:51 of the quarter, Jackson had 14 points and helped cut a 21-point deficit to 82-75 going into the final quarter. Over the final 18 minutes the Mavericks outscored the Bullets 49-23 -- with Jackson doing most of the damage, outscoring Washington alone 30-23 during that span.
"Oh boy, stud tonight," Dallas coach Dick Motta said of Jackson's play. "He's a competitor. With Jason going down and Jamal not up to par, someone had to step up."
It was two free throws by Jackson with 1:15 left that pulled the Mavericks even at 97. And after Webber missed a jumper, Jackson shook free from Mitchell Butler and scored on a layup with 41.5 seconds left for a 99-97 lead -- the first lead for Dallas since the second quarter.
And that was it. Doug Overton, playing crunch-time minutes ahead of Scott Skiles, tried to feed Webber in the post, but the ball was stolen by Popeye Jones. Mashburn hit two free throws with 24.9 seconds left for a 101-97 lead and the game was over. The Bullets managed just 15 points in the fourth quarter and 36 in the second half. Needless to say the fans booed loudly as they left.
"I'm not worried about what the fans think," Calbert Cheaney said. "I'm worried about what this team thinks; let the fans think whatever they want to. This has got to be the worst. A [21-point] lead? At home? I can't explain it."
The Bullets were hoping for a better offensive effort with the activation earlier in the day of Rex Chapman, who had missed seven games after breaking his right thumb Feb. 3. But it was a long night for Chapman, who hit one of five shots in 21 minutes and finished with two points.
Defensively? Well, Jackson was scoreless in the second half until Chapman checked in for Anthony Tucker with six minutes left and the Bullets leading 74-53.
Nine seconds later Jackson was fouled while posting up Chapman, and converted the three-point play. Then Jackson scored on a 10-foot jumper. Then another layup. Then a dunk. By the time Jackson scored on a driving layup with 3.4 seconds left to end the quarter and pull Dallas to within 82-74, the fire was burning out of control.
Jackson knew he had to step up after Kidd went down. "At halftime I said to some of the guys we might as well lay it on the line," Jackson said. "It's a total team effort. It does a lot for your confidence."
Imagine where Lucious Harris' confidence level is now. The second-year guard out of Long Beach State stepped in for Kidd and scored a career-high 25 points in 34 minutes, hitting 10 of 13 shots.
Because of the collapse, Juwan Howard's solid game will be forgotten. The rookie scored 30 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had seven assists.
What will be remembered in a season where the Bullets have already thrown away 18-point leads, is how they had a 21-point lead against a struggling Mavs team -- and got beat.
"It's frustrating, I've never been a loser like this," Webber said. "It's a game you try not to remember at all. It's a game I'm used to coming back and winning. I don't know how to act. I'm not a sore loser. But you just got embarrassed on your home court . . ."
And in a season of embarrassments, this was the worst yet.
Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks
Site: Bradley Center, Milwaukee
TV/Radio: Ch. 20/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The Bucks are coming off their worst loss of the season, a 152-104 defeat to the Orlando Magic on Monday. Milwaukee (20-32) is in next-to-last place in the Central Division. Rookie forward Glenn Robinson was 16th in the league in scoring (20.9) going into play last night and center/forward Vin Baker was 12th in rebounding (10.2). In the teams' only meeting this season, Jan. 19, the Bullets lost to the Bucks, 120-115.