LANDOVER -- The law of averages caught up with the Washington Bullets and Dallas Mavericks at the Capital Centre last night.
The Bullets had made a habit of winning close games this season, capturing seven of 10 decided by three points or fewer. The Mavericks had managed to lose seven games in the last 30 seconds.
But this time the teams reversed roles. The Mavericks repeatedly made clutch shots in the last two minutes to hold off the Bullets, 99-96, before 11,013.
Washington (18-23), which finished the first half of its season with consecutive home losses to Indiana and Dallas, three times closed within a point in the final 92 seconds. But the Bullets could not overtake the Mavericks, who took 25 fewer shots than the Bullets but shot 59 percent (42-for-71) from the field.
The Bullets had an excellent opportunity to win it after Dallas guard Derek Harper was whistled for a five-second violation trying to inbound the ball with 16 seconds left.
Trailing 97-96, the Bullets were determined to get a shot off in the final seconds, leaving Dallas little or no time to retaliate.
With three seconds left, Ledell Eackles broke free on the baseline. But the chunky reserve guard threw up an air ball while attempting a running jump shot.
Dallas center James Donaldson collared his 17th rebound of the game and was fouled by Pervis Ellison with 2.7 seconds left. Donaldson converted the two insurance free throws before Mark Alarie's desperate three-point attempt banged off the back rim at the buzzer.
Bullets coach Wes Unseld said Eackles, rather than team scoring leader Bernard King, was the first option in the Bullets' last designed play.
"Maybe it was unfair to put Ledell in that situation because he sat out a lot of the fourth quarter," said Unseld. "But he's usually good in that situation."
Said Eackles: "I got a good shot. I just didn't connect."
But the Mavericks were more than happy that Eackles, not King, took the pressure shot.
"I was an assistant coach with the Knicks when Bernard played in New York," said Mavericks coach Richie Adubato, "and I've seen him make 100 clutch shots. But we did a good job denying him the ball. Even though Bernard scored 27 tonight, Alex English did an excellent job defending him most of the game."
English, acquired as a free agent after 10 seasons in Denver, also led the Mavericks with 22 points in 27 minutes, hitting nine of 14 shots. But it was Harper, cramming 10 of his 21 points into the last quarter, who held the Bullets at bay.
The Mavericks (14-26), who have gone 10-25 since losing forward Roy Tarpley and guard Fat Lever in early November, dictated the tempo throughout the game.
Just as they did the previous night in Baltimore against the Indiana Pacers, the Bullets squandered an early lead. They led by as many as 11 (40-29) in the first half, but Dallas never deviated from its slowdown half-court tactics that led to high-percentage shots.
"Their guards -- Harper, Rolando Blackman and Brad Davis -- controlled the rhythm," said Bullets forward Harvey Grant (20 points, nine rebounds). "We never got our transition game going, and we were totally flat in the second half."
The Bullets hit a cold stretch in the final quarter, managing only six points in the first six minutes, as the Mavericks turned a three-point deficit into an 87-79 advantage.
Said Adubato: "By playing solid defense and slowing the tempo, we always keep people within range of winning. But, in recent weeks, we've been in a real shooting slump, hitting only 40 percent of our shots.
"Against Detroit the other night, we made only two of 17 in the paint and lost at the buzzer. We have good shooters, and tonight, they were finally making them."
Trailing 91-84 with 4 minutes, 15 seconds left, the Bullets used a trapping defense to close the gap.
"They forced us to go with a smaller lineup," said Adubato, "and that enabled them to get a lot of offensive rebounds down the stretch. But we made all the big shots when we had to."
The Bullets didn't, and lost a second straight game to a struggling, sub-.500 team. Their competition will get considerably tougher this week, with a road game against Detroit tomorrow night and a home game against Utah Tuesday night.
NOTES: Former Maryland star Brad Davis is still proving a valuable reserve in his 13th NBA season. The only remaining original Maverick, Davis, 32, has announced this will be his final season. But he has been more active than expected, filling Lever's role as the first guard off the bench. He is averaging 5.2 points and 2.7 assists, but scored a season-high 15 points in Friday night's 84-82 loss to Detroit . . . . The Bullets have lost nine straight at the Palace in Auburn Hills. But the odds will improve this time with Pistons playmaker Isiah Thomas out for the rest of the season with a wrist injury . . . . King should know officially Tuesday whether he has made Eastern Conference All-Star team. That is when the coaches' selections will be announced.