For the injury-riddled Washington Bullets, a chance to break a five-game losing streak came down to the final six seconds against the Indiana Pacers at the Baltimore Arena last night.
With the score tied, anointed team leader Juwan Howard found himself open on the baseline and attempted an eight-foot shot.
"I make that shot 98 percent of the time," said Howard, who scored a career-high 32 points. "When I shoot it, all I'm thinking is about winning the game."
But this was the exception to the rule. Howard missed and the Pacers' Dale Davis rebounded. The outlet went to Reggie Miller, who streaked down the court, his path to the basket blocked by Calbert Cheaney.
Miller drew the foul with one second left and converted the first of two free throws for the winning 95-94 margin as the Pacers broke their own three-game skid.
The Bullets had just enough time for a desperation shot by Howard from the corner. Again, it missed. Gheorghe Muresan muscled in for the rebound, but his putback jam failed to beat the final buzzer as the crowd of 13,250 groaned in agony.
Bullets coach Jim Lynam, playing with a patched-up lineup minus Chris Webber, Mark Price and Robert Pack, would not fault Howard for shooting too soon.
"Juwan had a shot he normally makes, plus it gives us a chance to rebound the ball," Lynam said. "Besides,
the Pacers were out of timeouts and really had to hustle down the floor."
But the Bullets could be blamed for a lack of maturity. They had a foul to give in the closing seconds and could have prevented the game-winning maneuver by Miller (29 points).
"We had talked about the foul situation in our previous timeout," Lynam said. "Losing a game like this is simply inexperience and not being in this situation enough."
This latest loss was particularly frustrating because the Bullets had battled back from a 90-84 deficit to go ahead 92-90 on Brent Price's three-pointer with 24 seconds remaining.
But the Pacers tied it eight seconds later when Davis converted an alley-oop pass from Mark Jackson into a thunderous dunk.
Said Pacers coach Larry Brown: "Mark came to the bench after the Bullets went ahead and said, 'I think I can get the lob to Dale.' They had been popping out on Reggie, and I know they had a foul to give. Mark made a great pass, and Dale made a great catch."
Added Jackson: "We needed to get dirty. We needed to get into a situation where we had to make a stop. And we badly needed a win."
Not as badly as the Bullets (22-27), who are in danger of falling out of playoff contention.
Howard has been forced to carry an inordinate amount of the offense in the absence of Webber and Pack. He often found himself double-teamed by the Pacers.
He would search out the open man, but the Bullets' usually reliable outside shooters -- Price and Tim Legler -- were a combined 5-for-13 from the field.
The Bullets struggled early to get any offensive consistency, scoring only 16 first-quarter points.
Part of the problem was the limited play of the 7-foot-7 Muresan. He picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in less than a minute early in the second half, and didn't return until the fourth quarter. He finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
"He can't be in and out of there like that," said Lynam. "He never got his offensive rhythm tonight and it really hurt us."
Muresan saw his pivot battle with Rik Smits (28 points, 10 rebounds) a bit differently.
"I blocked some shots, and still the whistle blew," he said. "Sometimes, the referees are too tough."
But Muresan shouldered the blame for missing two free throws with Indiana leading 92-91 and 59 seconds left.
"I had the chance to give us the lead. Those were two big shots. I've got to make them."
Howard could say the same.
NOTE: Fans who couldn't attend last night's game because of the weather can exchange their unused tickets for the game against Atlanta on March 10.