WASHINGTON - The Washington Wizards couldn't get enough Easter baskets to stay with the NBA's most prolific offense yesterday.
As a result, a 110-103 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at MCI Center left them with an even bigger obstacle to overcome in the race for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
The defeat dropped the young Wizards (34-39) to 2 1/2 games behind the Indiana Pacers with nine contests remaining.
"I think this was a game in which you gauge yourself on how good you are, not only now, but for the future," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "I think we played as well as we could, and I am so disappointed for our players. We were right there against a team that is really good. They're going to be a handful in the playoffs."
Dallas' victory was its 51st in 73 games and came on the heels of a 108-82 rout of Boston on Friday in which the Celtics - third in the Eastern Conference - trailed by 42 points in the fourth quarter.
"It's not going to get any easier," Wizards forward Popeye Jones said. "We've got to just strap it on and grind it out. Somebody said, 'Wow, they played the Mavericks really tough.' But at this stage of the season, there are no moral victories. We need wins."
The game was tied at 96 after a slow-starting Michael Jordan hit a reverse layup with 2:34 remaining for his ninth and 10th points, his final total.
But the Mavericks showed why they have had extraordinary success by employing a philosophy of outscoring opponents. After a noble defensive effort by the Wizards that controlled the flow for much of the game, Dallas' spread was decisive in the final two minutes.
Guard Steve Nash, a Western Conference All-Star, drilled a three-pointer to put Washington behind for good, then scored five more points during a 10-2 run at crunch time.
The screen-and-roll attack had the Wizards scrambling on defense to cover for one another and a Maverick, usually Nash, open for jumpers.
"They're tough to match up with. They've got a lot of weapons," Washington guard Chris Whitney said. "They've got five guys capable of making three-point shots, and they like to get up and down the court, spread you out and get you in transition to get open shots for everybody. Once we had to play that way, it worked to their advantage."
Said Jones: "It's almost as if you pick your poison. They want to get you in a shootout type of game."
The Wizards were also hampered by an uncommonly slow start for Jordan, who had 12 points in the first period Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks and finished with 34. He was 4-for-14 from the field yesterday.
"I just didn't have any rhythm," Jordan said of his early trouble after coming off the bench again. "I went in just trying to fit in with what was happening, and then I'm getting shots with five seconds or less on the shot clock."
Inside the final minute of the third quarter, Jordan finally broke a scoreless drought with two free throws. All of his field goals came in the fourth quarter as he began driving effectively. It wasn't nearly enough.
"That team [Dallas] is just so potent," he said. "We fought hard and our guys never gave up, but Nash hit a couple of big shots that kind of separated the men from the boys."
Dirk Nowitzki was practically right on his season average with 23 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Mavericks, and Nash finished with 22 points - including 19 in the second half - and 12 assists.
"You can't really give Mike [Jordan] a chance to win the game," Nash said. "We really knew we couldn't get down one or keep it even. We had to try to get a gap there because we had little room for error down the stretch."
Dallas is now 24-12 on the road and 26-2 when scoring at least 110 points. The Wizards are left to scuffle and hope, especially after the Toronto Raptors won yesterday to also pull ahead of them.
"We're probably playing the top two teams in the NBA back to back," said Richard Hamilton, who had a team-high 23 points.
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Los Angeles Lakers
Site: MCI Center, Washington
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WTEM (980 AM)