Washington Wizards forward Juwan Howard is having a hard time forgetting about his most recent effort, against the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night. All those two- and three-foot shots that rimmed out and those 15-footers that clanged iron are tormenting him.

He missed 14 of 17 shots in all, scored just six points as the Wizards lost 91-80 despite being within six points with 3 minutes 25 seconds left.

"I'll never have a game like that again," Howard said. "It was very disappointing. I'm still trying to find ways to get over it, not to think about it, but it's tough. If I could have made at least half the shots I missed I could have helped the team be in a better position to win the ballgame.

"It's very depressing, especially when you're going through a tough stretch like this."

The Wizards will go into Thursday night's game in Phoenix with a five-game losing streak, including a pair of close defeats on this road trip. The Lakers, who had posted a league-best seven straight victories before losing to Sacramento tonight and boast the NBA's second-best record at 15-5, won despite an unimpressive performance.

However, Washington's starting front court, including Howard, came up empty. Howard, forward Michael Smith and center Ike Austin made 7 of 30 shots and scored 14 points--16 fewer than Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal.

"As for our front line, we could have played a lot better," Howard said. "We would have won the ballgame, or had a better chance, if we would have played better. You hate to have a night like that when you have not only one guy playing that bad but a lot of guys playing bad."

Washington did outrebound Los Angeles 50-45, with Howard grabbing a team-high nine rebounds. But with so little offensive production from the front court, the Wizards stayed close only because guards Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland combined for 38 points.

Coach Gar Heard said he's not worried that his front line will play so poorly very often, pointing out that Howard, Smith and Austin combined for 31 points in a loss at Utah on Monday.

Heard's concern is that the Wizards go cold for at least one stretch in almost every game and routinely have found themselves facing double-digit deficits.

"I'm not worried," Heard said. "Juwan is not going to go 3 for 17 again this season. Our front line is not going to go 7 for 30. If our guards keep playing the way they've been playing--I'm really satisfied with the way Rod and Mitch have been playing--it's only a matter of time before we get everything together."

But time is running out, and with a 5-15 record, the Wizards need to improve quickly.

"It's definitely improving," Strickland said. "The worst thing about it is we started out so bad and we're playing against some tough teams."

Winning regularly will require improved play up front, particularly at center. Austin has struggled since breaking his nose four games ago in Toronto, scoring just 26 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. He also has not played as well defensively.

O'Neal has established good position against just about every center he has faced this season, but Washington backups Jahidi White and Gerard King managed to keep O'Neal farther from the basket than Austin did.

Austin has worn a cumbersome mask that, he said, has limited his vision. He briefly stopped wearing it in the second half against the Lakers. A custom-fitted protector arrived today and Austin wore it at practice and will use it until his nose has healed.

"We had good shots against the Lakers; they just didn't fall," Austin said. "We might not miss a shot Thursday night. We just have to be mentally strong. We have to bounce back and move on."

Wizards Note: Backup rookie guard Richard Hamilton injured his pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand at practice and was sent back to Washington for examination. Initial X-rays were negative, and as of now the injury has been categorized as a sprain. Reggie Jordan likely will back up Mitch Richmond against Phoenix and Saturday night against San Antonio.