LANDOVER -- If ever there was 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 better power forwards, left in the first half with a sprained ankle and would not return.
But in Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando has arguably the best player in basketball today. And the 6-foot-7 point guard was the man the Magic turned to last night in beating the Washington Bullets.
Hardaway scored 13 of his 30 points in the final quarter, as Orlando held off a late Washington rally for a 114-112 win before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at the USAir Arena. It was the fourth straight win for the Magic, and the second over the Bullets this season. At 11-2, Orlando matched the best start in franchise history.
Washington saw its two-game winning streak end, and fell to 5-6. The Bullets, trailing by as many as 10 points early in the fourth quarter, rallied in the closing minutes and twice got to within a single point in the final 67 seconds.
And both times it was Hardaway who answered. After a layup by Calbert Cheaney with 1:07 left had Washington within 106-105, Hardaway scored on a jump hook in the lane.
Robert Pack, who scored a season-high 35 points, answered on the other end, hitting a short jumper to pull Washington within 108-107.
But Hardaway came down the other end and again increased the lead to three, hitting a jump shot over Cheaney to make it 110-107.
After a timeout, Washington had a chance to tie the game, but a five-second inbound violation was called on what seemed like a quick count from the replacement official. And that was the game for the Bullets, who were trying to string together three straight wins for the first time in two seasons.
Dennis Scott scored 29 points, and Nick Anderson added 25 for Orlando. Juwan Howard backed Pack with a season-high 27 points for the Bullets.
With O'Neal out all season, Hardaway has been asked to carry the Magic. He has been up to the challenge, averaging 27.9 points -- second in the league -- going into last night.
Nothing changed against the Bullets. In the first half, he scored 15 points (6-for-7 from the field) to help the Magic to a 62-52 lead at the intermission.
He cooled slightly after that, finishing 10-for-16 from the field, but didn't miss when it counted most at crunch time.
Both teams were coming off wins on Friday night. The Bullets were able to pull away from the Miami Heat in Baltimore, while the Magic had won on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Bullets were entering the game at a disadvantage, having lost starting power forward Rasheed Wallace to a sprained right ankle against the Heat.
The first quarter last night was a standoff, but Orlando's game plan would demonstrate that the Bullets would have problems defending Hardaway all night. Every time Hardaway touched the ball, the Bullets would send a man to double team. He would rotate the ball but it would wind up back in the hands of Hardaway, who scored 11 first-quarter points.
It was a layup by Hardaway with 3:16 left that gave the Magic its biggest lead of the quarter, 23-17. But Tim Legler, as he did in the fourth quarter against Miami on Friday, provided a spark as he hit two jumpers in the final 2:23 of the quarter. The Bullets outscored Orlando 11-6 over the final three minutes and went into the second quarter trailing by just 29-28.
Orlando lost Grant in the final seconds of the first quarter when he turned his right ankle, and had to be helped off the floor. He tested the ankle at the start of the second quarter, playing the first four minutes. But the ankle didn't loosen up, and Grant wound up sitting the rest of the game.
And the Magic didn't appear to miss him. Washington twice took one-point leads early in the second quarter, and had tied the game at 39 after Legler hit a three-pointer with 7:32 left. But foul trouble was hurting the Bullets. Cheaney picked up his third foul just over two minutes into the second quarter, and had to go to the bench. And Mitchell Butler managed to play just one minute in the second quarter before he had to go to the bench with his third foul.
Which is why Legler spent 17 minutes on the floor in the first half. And why Jeff Webster, who had played five minutes in Washington's last four games going into last night, was on the court for nine minutes.
Orlando took advantage. After Washington tied the game at 39, Orlando responded with an 18-7 run, taking a 57-46 lead on a layup by Joe Wolf with 53 seconds left in the half.
Washington scored six points in the final 44 seconds to pull to within 59-52 after a short jumper by Webster with 5.9 seconds left. But Anderson hit a three-pointer with less than a second left -- Orlando's fourth three-pointer of the half -- for a 62-52 halftime lead.
Grant didn't return in the third quarter, but the Magic was getting a big contribution from Scott, who scored 10 points in the quarter. Scott and Anderson each hit two three-pointers in the third, when Orlando led by as many as 11 points.
Orlando's lead was 84-76 with 3:47 left after a jumper by Scott. But the penetration of Pack was beginning to break down Orlando's defense. The Bullets' point guard scored five points in the final three minutes.
A free throw by Pack with one minute left had Washington within 86-83. But Brian Shaw hit a short jumper with three seconds left, and Orlando had an 88-83 lead going into the final quarter.