After they wasted a 10-point halftime lead and then came back within a virtual lay-in and three-foot shot of victory, the Clippers could only shake their heads as they left the Sports Arena Friday night.
Charles Smith could have won the game with three seconds left in regulation. Ken Norman could have won the game with a three-foot bank shot as the buzzer sounded.
When the game went into overtime, Jeff Malone scored seven of his game-high 39 points in the five-minute extra period, including three consecutive jumpers, to lift the Washington Bullets to a 118-112 victory before 11,105.
"An inch here, an inch there," said Clipper Coach Don Casey, who went all but 45 seconds of overtime without Smith, who fouled out. "Maybe we should get a leprechaun like at Boston Garden to ease those in."
An inch anywhere and the Clippers are 22-27. Instead, they are 21-28, with another addition to a growing list of close losses.
They never should have had to worry about such a notion.
The Bullets (19-33) overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to lead, 83-74, after three quarters, picking apart the Clipper defense that had troubled them a quarter earlier.
Washington shot 60.9% in the third quarter and outscored the Clippers, 34-15, Bernard King getting 14 points and Malone 10.
The Clippers trailed, 100-91, with 4:36 remaining when the comeback started. They got six points from Norman and a free throw by Danny Manning to close within 100-98 with 2:54 left. Both teams scored again to set up the final seconds.
Washington had already been shut out on two consecutive possessions when Clipper Tom Garrick grabbed a loose ball under the basket. The Clippers had two full timeouts and a 20-second timeout to use, but opted for neither.
They went to Manning at the free-throw line. A spin move and he was alone, a step into the lane to swish the shot and tie the score, 102-102.
The Bullets were denied again. When Benoit Benjamin rebounded Malone's missed jumper, one of 14 rebounds for Benjamin, the Clippers finally called a timeout, setting up the potential game-winning shot with 15.5 seconds to play.
They ran the clock down to about three seconds before Smith twisted under the basket and missed a layup. The shot rolled along the rim and off.
"I thought it was in," Smith said later. "It just missed."
Washington's turn. The Bullets called back-to-back timeouts with one second left, and the Clippers used their 20-second timeout, only to have Ed Horton's inbounds pass from half-court sail untouched past King near the basket. The Clippers had another chance, and no time had expired.
Norman got behind Charles Jones for a three-foot shot as the buzzer sounded, but put the ball up too hard. The ball went off the front of the rim, forcing overtime.
"I thought it was in," Norman said. "It was a great shot. We had two chances to win in the last five seconds or so. We ran great plays. We just didn't get the shots."
With an offense that, at best, has been inconsistent and averaged 97.8 points the previous five games, the Clippers' plan was to force more turnovers. That, they figured, should translate into easy baskets.
The Clippers executed their plan. Sparked by a 13-4 run midway through the second quarter, they took a 59-49 halftime lead.
Washington, which lost by six points Thursday night at Golden State, was ahead, 38-36, with 6:56 to play in the half. Norman, who finished with 32 points, connected from the right baseline, Smith made the free throw when the Bullets were called for their second illegal defense, and the Clippers were up by a point. Then came the defense.
Norman darted in front of King's pass at half-court and went in alone for a dunk. When the Bullets' Ledell Eackles penetrated inside the next time down, Benjamin swatted his shot out beyond the three-point circle. Norman grabbed the ball and raced to a layup.
Next possession, similar result for Washington. Darrell Walker threw the ball out of bounds against the trap, and David Rivers converted that into a free-throw line jumper. Suddenly, the Clippers were ahead, 45-38, with 4:54 to play, en route to a 49-40 advantage.
Manning put the Clippers ahead, 57-49, with a dunk and free throw, and the Clippers provided full-court pressure when the Bullets took the ball in.
It went to Walker, who was immediately surrounded by Norman and Joe Wolf. They knocked the ball loose, and Norman had only a few steps to go after picking the ball up for a layup at the buzzer.
Reserve guard Jim Les will be signed to his second 10-day contract, but not until Sunday. The one-day delay will allow the Clippers to get an extra game out of the extension before having to decide whether to sign Les for the rest of the season. Heading into play Friday night, he was averaging 11.5 minutes, 1.5 points and 2.0 assists in three games with the Clippers. . . . Monday's game against Sacramento at the Sports Arena has a 3 p.m. start because of President's Day.
The Clippers looked into the possibility of chartering an MGM Grand plane full-time but were unable to do so because of scheduling conflicts and refurbishing by the company. Besides, other than a five-game trip in early March, the Clipper travel schedule is light for the rest of the season. Team executives will, however, consider the possibility again during the off-season.
Danny Ainge isn't commenting on the record, but the Sacramento King guard has said he would welcome the opportunity to play for the Clippers. Any trade would have to come before Feb. 22. Ainge, whose leadership would be appreciated by the Clippers, reportedly is frustrated by Coach Dick Motta's structured offense.