LANDOVER -- By the time the Washington Bullets' locker room was opened last night, Juwan Howard was long gone. Rasheed Wallace and Calbert Cheaney also made quick exits. It seemed as if the team didn't want to discuss its fading playoff hopes, which, even with two months left in the season, grow more distant by the day.
What last night's game against the Charlotte Hornets revealed was that the Bullets had failed to learn a lesson from Wednesday's game. Same foe, same 17-point lead, same result, as the Hornets beat the Bullets for the second time in three days, 100-94, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
Howard, who finished with 18 points despite going scoreless the first 19 minutes, wasn't around to see the game's end after picking up his sixth foul on a charging call with 2:49 left. As Howard walked toward the end of the Bullets' bench, he knocked over a courtside microphone and kicked a cooler onto the playing floor. Howard was ejected even before he took a seat.
The Bullets (23-30) have lost three straight and nine of their past 10. Washington finds itself four games behind the Detroit Pistons, who fell into the eighth playoff spot with last night's loss to Minnesota.
"It's discouraging because this was a big game," said Brent Price, one of the few Bullets to hang around after Kenny Anderson's 22 points had led the Hornets to their fifth straight win. "We just had trouble scoring in the second half. They were running traps at us to slow us down. Offensively we started to struggle to get anything going, any flow or rhythm."
There was no such problem in the first half, when the Bullets twice led by 17. It was a near duplication of Wednesday's game in Charlotte, when the Bullets led by 17 at the half. But last night the Hornets were able to pull within 52-44 at the half despite the fact that Larry Johnson was just 2-for-6 from the field.
Washington appeared to have momentum going into the fourth quarter, after Mitchell Butler ended the third by banking a 60-foot shot that gave the Bullets a 76-70 lead. And a 5-0 Bullets run brought a 81-74 lead and a Hornets timeout.
But instead of going to the bench during the timeout, Wallace argued with an official and was given a technical. From there, little went right for the Bullets.
Dell Curry (21 points) made the free throw, then the Hornets connected on three straight three-pointers, the last by Glen Rice giving Charlotte its first lead at 84-83.
"The turning point was Charlotte's three-pointers," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "When you have a good stretch, you have to sustain it. We weren't able to."
The Hornets didn't have any problem sustaining their good stretch. Washington managed to tie the game at 86 on a free throw by Price with 5:12 left. But Johnson scored six straight points, Howard fouled out and the Bullets were left to wonder how much better their playoff picture would look if they had held their leads the past three days.
What happened last night was that the Bullets got soft. After an early 29-15 rebounding edge, they were out-rebounded 31-16 the rest of the way. The Bullets also failed to assert themselves at the free-throw line, hitting 18 of 29 and just one of five in the fourth quarter.
"Our foul shooting obviously hurt us big-time," Lynam said.
The Bullets have one more home game (tomorrow against Milwaukee) before a tough five-game Western trip that could end their dim playoff hopes. The frustration was obvious with Howard's tirade, and the quick departures after the game.
"We have to stay together, the worst thing we can do is hang our heads," Price said. "It's starting to get to the turning point for us. We're still in the hunt. We just need to start winning some games."
With the Bullets, winning games has become easier said than done.