EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Washington Bullets will beat a good Miami Heat team one night only to lose the next two to the Boston Celtics and the expansion Toronto Raptors. Or they'll play to within a basket of the Orlando Magic, and then follow that up with a lousy effort.
Such a lousy effort came last night against the New Jersey Nets, who defeated the Bullets, 89-84, before 10,716 at the Meadowlands Arena to end a four-game losing streak and continue an opening month of highs and lows for Washington.
Once again the Bullets (5-7) entered the game as the best shooting team in the league (50.9 percent) only to struggle. The Bullets shot just 40.7 percent for the game, with the starting backcourt of Robert Pack and Calbert Cheaney combining to hit 12 of 33 shots. A season-low of 16 points in the first quarter was indicative of the night to follow.
"We missed shots, good shots," said Pack, who hit six of 17 and scored 14 points. "In the first half we had some good looks, and we just weren't finishing. I thought we executed well to get open looks, but they just weren't falling."
Which made it amazing that the Bullets, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, were still in the game in the final minute. When Juwan Howard (21 points, 10 rebounds) scored on a jumper with 33.7 seconds left, Washington had closed to within 86-84, putting itself in position to possibly steal a game.
But with the shot clock winding down on the Nets' next possession Armon Gilliam, the team's top scorer in the absence of Derrick Coleman (on the injured list with an irregular heartbeat) scored on a short jumper in the lane with 14.4 seconds left. That shot by Gilliam (17 points, 16 rebounds) gave New Jersey an 88-84 lead, and the game.
The fact that the 5-8 Nets are without a loss at home and without a win on the road was not lost on the star of the game.
"It's funny," Gilliam said. "At home we play with a lot of confidence and expect to win. But I think we'll be just fine, we'll break through and win some games on the road. All we have to do is keep working as hard as we do at home."
The Nets won last night by working hard on the boards. At the half, New Jersey -- the league's best rebounding team -- had a 32-17 advantage, and ended up with a 59-44 edge. The Nets had 24 offensive rebounds, eight by Gilliam and seven by reserve forward Jayson Williams (12 points, 14 rebounds in 26 minutes).
"We got banged on the boards game, set, match," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "And it's a shame, because the defense was good in the second half."
Good enough to hold New Jersey to six of 23 field goals (26.1 percent) in the third quarter when the Bullets staged a comeback. The Nets were leading 59-52 with 7:24 left in the third quarter after a rare field goal by Yinka Dare, who starts at center for New Jersey. But the Bullets went on a 12-0 run with five different players scoring to take a 64-59 lead on a dunk by Rasheed Wallace.
Howard, who hit just one of 10 shots in the first half, was solid in the third quarter, when he scored 14 points (7-for-12 from the field). And yet his effort was wasted as the momentum shifted with a 10-2 run over the last 2:05 by the Nets, who would take a 69-66 lead going into the final period.
"We hurt ourselves," Howard said of the momentum shift, which included four points each from Vern Fleming and Ed O'Bannon. "It's very frustrating to have a lead like we did, and lose it. We experienced that last year, and we don't want that to happen too much this year."
Still, Washington was able to take a 76-75 lead in the final quarter after a layup by Pack with 5:29 left. But the Nets regained the lead, 77-76, on a basket by Gilliam and led the rest of the way.
The Bullets will get some help on the boards tomorrow with the return of Chris Webber, who served his one-game suspension last night. But they left the Meadowlands missing out on an opportunity against a sub-.500 team -- something that has happened quite a bit during the opening month.
Last night poor shooting by the league's best shooting team was the problem.
"Even the clankers that were three feet from the rim, we couldn't get in," Lynam said. "There are going to be nights like this."