The Bullets have been insisting their string of successes lately was no fluke, that they could, too, beat a quality team. They were right, proving it tonight by coming behind to beat the best team in the NBA.

Washington played wonderfully very early and very late -- and it was enough to muster a 104-102 upset and their first victory in five tries this season over the Philadelphia 76ers. Kevin Grevey was the embodiment of the Bullets, shooting better than everyone on the court and then shooting his mouth off after the Bullets' 12th victory in 16 games was over.

"We weren't impressed with that 22-game (home) winning streak," snorted Grevey, who was 11 for 15 from the field and scored 29 points despite missing much of the second quarter with a bruised right knee. "We weren't in awe of 'em.

"Nothing detrimental, of course. But we're good, too. And they had to be working out there, 'cause they know that whoever has the second-best record in the division (either the Sixers or the Celtics) just might be playing us in the (playoff) miniseries. We have a nice chance now to get that sixth (and last) spot.

"This is the best regular-season win in a long time. I know We've had grudge things going with Philly in the past, and Boston, and New York, and Seattle after the playoffs. But this was one of the best. Ever."

Most everything the Bullets tried early worked. Grevey's outside bombs and clever passing by nearly everyone else for layups enabled them to dash to a 28-18 lead. In his last three games, he has averaged 31 points and made 63 percent of his field-goal tries. Tonight, he made two three-point shots in the first seven minutes.

There also was some history involved along the way. Kevin Porter became just the second active player to get 5,000 career assists, and Elvin Hayes moved into third position on the all-time rebounding list. With 13 tonight, Hayes has 14,466, or two more than Nate Thurmond, but about 7,000 short of Bill Russell.

Still, for all the individual glory, it appeared the Bullets would fall short as a team, that their recent road trend of playing well, but not well enough to win, would continue. The Sixers caught the Bullets early in the second half and moved steadily ahead.

"I looked at the scoreboard when it was 101-96," Grevey said, "and I could see Philadelphia relax a bit. Then we got a couple of breaks (that led to a long jumper by Greg Ballard and a breakaway layup by Grevey) and all of a sudden we're just down one.

"And I knew we had 'em then. In the games we've lost lately, we've been the ones ahead and haven't been able to hold on. This time we were on the attack."

Washington took the lead for good, 102-101, on two free throws by Ballard and extended it to three points on two more foul shots by Grevey. Then Grevey and Porter played like offensive tackles and helped assure the victory.

How's that?

Well, the Sixers had one last chance, with Andrew Toney on the foul line for two shots with nine seconds left. He would try to make the first shot and try to miss the second, hoping one of the Sixer giants could glide up for the rebound and put it back in for possible overtime.

The Sixers had their tallest trees nearest Hayes and Wes Unseld under the basket. And their two best leapers, Bobby Jones and Julius Erving, ready to swoop down from either side of Toney as his hard miss jumped off the front of the rim. They had used that tactic for a last-second victory over Atlanta last year.

Toney made the first shot, but Jones and Erving never got close to the ball on the second. Porter and Grevey, their aims folded in correct blocking form, moved into the free-throw line and stopped all traffic as soon as Toney's shot hit the rim and Unseld grabbed the winning rebound.

"It (the loss) is kinda simple to explain," said Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham. "The better team won. We were up seven in the fourth quarter, but they always were in the game. We played terrible defense the first half. I'm sure we were resting on our laurels, certain we would win at home. We were ahead (in the fourth quarter), but I never thought we ever were in control."

They never were.