EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With the first month of the season nearly over, it's hard to put a finger on the Washington Bullets.
On the other hand, they lose to teams that they should be beating.
That was the case last night against the New Jersey Nets, a team that had lost four straight. And yet for much of the night the Bullets struggled, and eventually lost, 89-84, at the Meadowlands Arena.
Armon Gilliam grabbed 16 rebounds and scored 17 points, including two key baskets and a free throw down the stretch, to lead New Jersey (5-8), which has yet to lose at home or win on the road this season.
It was the second straight loss for the Bullets (5-7), who dropped two games under .500 for the second time this season. Juwan Howard recovered from a quiet first half to score 21 points.
But as a team, Washington -- the league's best shooting team going into last night (50.9 percent) -- shot just 40.7 percent. With the losing streak, they'll surely welcome back Chris Webber, who returns tomorrow against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Washington trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half. And after a layup by Kenny Anderson (14 points, 11 assists) with 3:20 left, the Nets had an 84-78 lead.
But the Bullets would close to 86-84 after a jumper by Howard with 33.7 seconds left.
On the Nets' next possession, Gilliam, the team's top scorer in the absence of Derrick Coleman (irregular heartbeat), scored on a short jumper in the lane with 14.4 seconds left and the shot clock winding down. That shot gave New Jersey an 88-84 lead, and basically the game.
The Bullets definitely could have used Webber in the first period last night. Howard, double-teamed every time he got the ball, hit one of 10 shots and scored just three first-half points. Calbert Cheaney hit three of nine shots, and had nine points. As a team the Bullets shot 35.7 percent, and were very fortunate to go into halftime trailing by seven, 49-42.
Washington ran into trouble early when Rasheed Wallace, who missed Saturday's game against Orlando with a sprained ankle, picked up his second foul just three minutes into the game. The Bullets were forced to go to a small lineup, and still managed to stay close with Robert Pack's jumper with 4:05 left pulling the Bullets to within 19-15.
But then the Nets went on a 10-0 run behind the play of Anderson. The Nets point guard scored six points, and after his two free throws with 42 seconds left, New Jersey led 29-15.
Anderson scored nine points in the quarter for the Nets, who rotated the ball well offensively and shot 55.6 percent from the field. Washington shot just 28.6 percent (six of 21) over the opening 12 minutes, and matched its lowest scoring first quarter of the season, trailing 29-16.
Sparked by three-pointers by Tim Legler and Mitchell Butler, Washington began the second quarter with an 11-4 run, with Butler's shot pulling the Bullets to within 33-27 with 8:16 left.
But the Nets, effective from the perimeter the entire half, hit three straight jumpers and increased the lead to 39-27 after a jumper by Jayson Williams with 4:35 left.
As badly as the Bullets played in the half, it was amazing that they didn't get blown out. Despite being outshot (50.0 percent to 35.7 percent) and out-rebounded (32-17); and despite having two of their best players, Howard and Cheaney, combine to hit four of 19 shots, Washington went into the half trailing by just seven.
Howard didn't stay down for long. He scored eight of Washington's first 10 points of the third quarter, hitting his first four shots. His fast-break dunk with 8:58 left had Washington within 55-52.
After two free throws by Anderson, and a layup by Yinka Dare, New Jersey's lead was 59-52. But the Bullets had five different players score during a 12-0 run to lead, after a dunk by Wallace, by 64-59.
During that run the Nets went more than five minutes without scoring. For the quarter, New Jersey hit just six of 23 shots (26.1 percent).
But the Nets warmed up in the final 2:05 for a 10-2 burst -- with Vern Fleming and Ed O'Bannon each scoring four points -- to take a 69-66 lead into the final quarter.