LANDOVER -- With their two leading scorers on the sidelines in street clothes, the question for the Washington Bullets going into last night's game against the Orlando Magic was who would score.
For much of the night scoring wasn't a problem for the Bullets, who led by seven points nearly halfway through the fourth quarter. But in the end, Washington managed just one field goal in the final six minutes in losing to the Magic, 103-99, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
Washington hit more field goals (43-39) and grabbed more rebounds (43-36) than the Magic, and limited Shaquille O'Neal to just seven points in the second half. Most nights against most teams that adds up to a win. Last night for the Bullets, it simply added up to disappointment.
"We outplayed them in almost every category, but they almost doubled our number in free throws (Orlando was 24-41, Washington 12-20)," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "That made the difference."
The Bullets got the bulk of their scoring from Tom Gugliotta, who scored 26 points, and rookie Calbert Cheaney, who had a career-high 26. But the two combined to score just two field goals in the fourth quarter.
"I think at the end we all picked it up defensively," said Orlando guard Nick Anderson, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds. "We forced them to miss a lot of shots."
The Bullets were shooting well in the fourth quarter until Doug Overton hit a jumper to give Washington a 91-84 lead with 6:44 left.
But the Bullets did not score over the next 4:04. Meanwhile, Orlando was on an 11-0 run that, following a free throw by O'Neal with 2:54 left, gave the Magic a 95-91 lead.
It would get as close as 98-97 after a layup by Cheaney ended a drought of 5:56 without a field goal. But two free throws by Anfernee Hardaway with 29.6 seconds left gave Orlando a 100-97 lead.
Later trailing 102-99 after two more free throws by Hardaway with 15.4 seconds left, Washington had a final attempt to tie the game. But Gugliotta's three-point attempt with four seconds left bounced off the back rim. Anderson's free throw with one second left closed out the scoring.
It was a tough loss for the Bullets, especially after neutralizing O'Neal in the second half. It was 7-foot-7 center Gheorghe Muresan who helped do the job, limiting the all-star to the seven second-half points. O'Neal, who had six dunks in the first half, didn't have any in the second.
"He's big, that's all I can say," O'Neal said. "Any time you play someone bigger than you you have to try to go right over them."
With leading scorers Rex Chapman (dislocated right ankle) and Don MacLean (hip pointer) out, the Bullets started the game with perhaps their best first quarter of the season, shooting 71.4 percent from the field and taking a 32-25 lead.
It was Cheaney, seemingly feeling more and more comfortable in his starting role at shooting guard, who had the hot hand opening the game, hitting his first five field-goal attempts -- the last of the five coming on a jump shot with 4:22 left that gave Washington a 22-17 lead.
The crisp ball movement continued the rest of the quarter, with Cheaney's 10 points (five of six from the field) leading the Bullets to a 32-25 lead.
"I was surprised at the way he could stick the jumper coming off screens," Orlando coach Brian Hill said of Cheaney. "He's going to have some big nights for his team."
O'Neal, who quietly scored eight points in the first quarter, woke up in the second. He scored 12 points in the quarter -- with five of six field goals coming on dunks. Still, the Bullets were able to maintain advantage most of the second quarter, leading by as many as 52-43 after a layup by Gugliotta with 2:36 left.
Orlando rallied, scoring the last six points of the half -- four by Anthony Bowie -- to go into the half trailing, 52-49. O'Neal had 20 points at the half.
After Kevin Duckworth picked up his fourth foul just 36 seconds into the third quarter, Unseld was forced to go with Muresan. Orlando was able to get as close as 58-57 after two free throws by Jeff Turner with 7:55 left.
Muresan was able to deny O'Neal dunks, pretty much taking the center out of his game. After Muresan came in the game, O'Neal scored just three points the rest of the quarter.
Meanwhile, the Bullets were able to run their fast break effectively, going on a 15-7 run that produced a 73-64 lead that ignited the crowd and forced Orlando to call timeout.
Orlando outscored Washington, 11-8, after the timeout and was within 81-75 at the start of the final period. And it was close enough for Orlando to overtake the Bullets at the end.
"Everyone who played for us contributed," Unseld said. "We were able to get out and run. We just didn't get the win."