Phoenix, which leads the NBA in steals and "Who's he?" players, came within 70 seconds last night of polfering a game from the unsuspecting Washington Bullets.

Despite the absence of two starters, such Suns as Marty Byrnes, Joel Kramer, Mike Bratz and Bayard Forrest matched the Bullets basket for basket at Capital Centre until a rebound bucket by Elvin Hays and four points from Bobby Dandridge enabled Washington to escape with a 101-98 thriller.

But the near-sellout crowd of 17,438 never was able to rest easy as long as the tireless Suns could keep running. In ability, they had no right to be within 10 points at the end, but their hustle and execution made up for any lack of talent.

Washington's relentless sledgehammer approach finally did in the Suns. The Bullets crashed the boards so well that they held a massive 59-43 rebounding edge, including a season-high 20 by Wes Unseld. Without this display of muscle, they would have lost their second straight home game.

To make up for the loss of Alvan Adams (ankle) and Gar Heard (back), Phoenix Coach John MacLeod substituted furiously and made sure the bulk of his team's shots were taken by those deadeye twins, Walter Davis and Paul Westphal.

Either tactic was hard to fault.Phoenix kept its fast break fresh all night and constantly beat Washington down the court. Davis (21 of 28 points in the first half) and Westphal (20 of 30 in the second) continually frustrated the Bullets with uncanny marksmanship.

"We haven't seen their kind of quick style this season," said Kandridge, who led the Bullets with 23 points, one more than Mitch Kupchak and two more than Hayer. "And when some of their subs come in you might take them for granted, but they are all scrappers and they can hurt you."

The Bullets didn't help themselves, struggling for three periods. At one point in the first half they missed eight straight shots while Phoenix was grabbing a 44-36 lead. They never could get any kind of offensive flow, hardly looking like the smooth bunch that just ended a nine-game winning streak.

"We didn't look like ourselves until the fourth quarter," said Coach Dick Motta. "Then I thought we worked our way into livelier bodies. I was pleased with that."

But before he could start celebrating, he had to watch Wesphal, who had been quiet three quarters, almost shoot the Bullets right into the Centre lobby.

Working behind baseline screens and picks, Westphal popped in seven straight shots in the fourth period to frustrate any Bullet attempts to pull away.

His last basket tied the score at 93 and Motta decided to put in Kevin Grevey for Tom Henderson, who had done a fine job on the Phoenix guard earlier in the game.

"We felt we needed a big guard in there," said Motta. "We had tried everything else on him. We also thought we needed shooters at every position. We had to outscore them."

The substitution wound up being a gem. After a Dandrige field goal gave Washington a 97-96 lead, Westphal ended his streak with an errant jumper and a missed follow shot. Grevey worked his way free at the other end for a 12-footer but it hit the front rim. He charged in, saw Hayes was open to the right of the basket and tipped the rebound to him. Hayes banked in the short shot.

A Davis drive with 58 seconds to go drew the Suns within one and, after Charles Johnson failed on a jumper, Phoenix raced for a quick shot. But Don Buse, who hardly ever shoots, couldn't make a baseline try. Washington got the rebound and Dandridge wrapped up the triumph with two foul shots 10 seconds before the buzzer.

"I was surprised I didn't cover Westphal at the start," said Grevey, "but after (John) Williamson scored 40 Friday night against us, I guess Dick was woundering about our big guard degense.

"I just tried to make him dribble. Once he did that, instead of shooting as soon as he got the ball, it neutralized his advantage."

Against both Davis and Westphal, however, the Bullets' best startegy most of the night was luck. At times, neither played as if he could miss a shot or make a mistake.

Overshadowed was a fine fourth-quarter effort from Kupchak, who played instead of Unseld because of his shooting ability. Kupchak had 12 points and five rebounds that period to keep Washington in contention.

The triumph, coupled with Philadelphia's loss to Cleveland, gives the Bullets a 2 1/2-game lead over the 76ers in the Atlantic Division race. Washington doesn't play again until Wednesday, when it plays host to the San Diego Clippers.

"We need the time off," said Dandridge. "We've been pushing ourselves so we didn't lose the edge we gained with the winning streak. It's been tiring and I think that's why we haven't been as sharp."