LANDOVER -- If ever there were a time to catch the Orlando Magic, this was it. Shaquille O'Neal, the strongest center in the league, was out with a broken thumb. And Horace Grant, one of the game's best power forwards, left in the first half with a sprained left ankle and would not return.
But in Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando has perhaps the best player in basketball today. And the 6-foot-7 point guard showed exactly why in the final minutes.
Twice in the final seconds the Bullets pulled within a point, and VTC twice Hardaway answered with tough shots as Orlando beat Washington, 114-112, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
Hardaway scored 13 of his 30 points in the final quarter, as Orlando won its fourth straight game. There was another Washington pattern that continued: Six times the Bullets have allowed more than 100 points, and six times they've lost.
"It was a heck of a game," said Bullets coach Jim Lynam. "Our offense was good; we played with less than 10 turnovers [eight]. But we had a hard time stopping them."
And it wasn't just Hardaway doing the damage. Dennis Scott scored 29 points and Nick Anderson added 25. The Magic hit 11 of 21 three-point field goals, which was really the difference.
The shooting display offset a career-high 35 points from Washington guard Robert Pack, who also had eight assists. Juwan Howard added 27 points and eight rebounds, and Gheorghe Muresan 14 points and 14 rebounds.
As has been the case with the replacement officials all season, this game was not without its controversy down the stretch. After Hardaway's jumper over the outstretched hands of Calbert Cheaney gave Orlando a 110-107 lead with 18.7 seconds left, the Bullets had a chance to tie.
But Cheaney, looking to inbound from the sideline, was called for a five-second violation on what appeared to be a quick count. And that ended any chance of the Bullets coming all the way back from a 13-point second-half deficit.
Lynam, who furiously argued the call, did not comment after the game. But Cheaney was quick to say it was a bad one.
"There was no way that was a five-second violation," Cheaney said. "I thought it was a good four seconds. I guess the referee made his best judgment. But it was fast. I was counting in my head, and it was four."
No matter what the count, it added up to the 13th loss in the past 16 meetings against the Magic for the Bullets, who also were lacking two key players with Rasheed Wallace (sprained ankle) and Chris Webber (separated shoulder) out. The Bullets had a two-game winning streak going into last night, and were looking to string together three wins for the first time in two seasons.
Instead the Bullets had the misfortune of running into an Orlando team that doesn't appear to have missed a beat since the injury to O'Neal. When it was clear that O'Neal would have surgery and miss a considerable amount of time, coach Bob Hill ran his team through two-a-day practices toward the end of training camp to revamp an offense that was mostly geared toward O'Neal.
The result: an offense in which Hardaway, who added 20 pounds muscle in the off-season, is the focal point.
How well is it working? Well, last night's win gave the Magic an 11-2 record, matching the best start in franchise history.
Hardaway was credited with six assists, but he created open shots for his teammates the entire night. Early in the game whenever he got the ball he was double-teamed, and two or three passes later the Magic often wound up with an easy shot.
And he scored when he had to. With Orlando leading 108-107, Hardaway hit a tough jump hook in the lane over Cheaney with 46 seconds left. With Orlando clinging to a one-point lead with 18.7 seconds left, Hardaway hit the jumper, again over Cheaney.
"I thought I played really good defense, he just raised his game up another notch," Cheaney said. "It shows he has a lot of confidence in his skills."
And the Magic has a lot of confidence in his skills and leadership.
"Penny was spectacular in the fourth quarter," Hill said. "He is the guy we want with the ball. If they play him one-on-one, I like his chances."
As usual, Hardaway was modest afterward. "Tonight was just one of those nights," he said. "We just weren't missing."
The Magic found out that the Bullets are more and more becoming a tough team to beat. Washington was just the second team this season to shoot 50 percent or better against Orlando (44 of 88) and just the third to score more than 100 points.
But it still wound up a loss against an Orlando team that, when it gets O'Neal back next month, will only get better.
"They're a really good team, even without Shaquille," Cheaney said. "When he comes back, they're going to be scary."