It was a mustn't game for the Bullets tonight.

At least, that's the way they played, as they lost a game to the Chicago Bulls in more ways than one.

They lost their fifth game of the season to the Bulls, 112-100. And they lost a full game to Chicago in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bullets trail the Bulls by 1 1/2 games.

"I think it was in the back of a lot of guys' minds what they had to do," said Greg Ballard. "I think we worried a little more than we should have. Possibly we could have been more relaxed. Chicago was certainly up for it."

The Bullets were anything but up at the start.They were behind by 11 at the end of the first quarter, and by 18 at the half. They cut that to a more shapely seven-point margin at the end of the third quarter and again midway through the fourth, but that was as close as they got.

The game may have been decided with 8:17 remaining in the first quarter when Elvin Hayes, the Bullets' high scorer with 22 points was presented with his third personal foul. He and Chicago forward David Greenwood, who led all scores with 28 points, had been exchanging pointed elbows. After the game, they exchanged pointed accounts.

"He usually comes out trying to throw elbows," said Hayes. "(Official) Bill Oates didn't make the calls. Oates said, 'I'll clean it up. I'll take care of it.' I felt the play (on the third foul) wasn't a foul. I had position."

"Elvin's like that," said Greenwood. "He goes out there and tries to intimidate you right away. The game started and wham! I got one right in the chest. I said, 'I guess that's the way we're going to play. I'd rather take the two fouls and get my licks in than get pounded to the ground."

When Hayes left the game, not to return until the start of the third quarter, the Bullets were trailing, 9-8. The Bulls took the lead for good in the game, 11-10, on a 18-foot jump shot by their leading scorer, Reggie Theus, and the Bullets took a well-advised timeout.

They came back and failed to score in their next six possessions, and the Bulls increased their lead to 19-10. The Bullets cut that to five -- the closest they got the rest of the game -- despite shooting only 36 percent in the quarter.

The second quarter wasn't much prettier. The Bullets got as close as 10 midway through the quarter at 45-35, but then the Bulls scored eight unanswered points.

The Bullets pulled themselves together long enough to pull within 12. But the Bulls outscored them, 8-2, in the last two minutes of the half to make their lead an unseemly 63-45.

"I thought the foul trouble to Elvin really hurt us," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "Three quick fouls in the first four minutes. What you try to do is try to get by with it. In the second quarter, I thought we were getting by with it. Then they scored eight of the last 10 points. We leave the floor 18 down. But there's still a second half to the game. We closed the gap to seven going into the last quarter.

"I told the players, 'Just because you cut it to seven doesn't mean anything. We're here to win, not to come back.'"

The Bullets cut the lead to seven at the end of the third quarter, largely because of Hayes' 13 third-quarter points.

"We were right in the ballgame," Hayes said. "I go out and we're 18 points down. I come back and we cut it to seven. A lot of our shots were not going in in the first half. We were not playing that good defense to compensate for the offense when they ran away with it."

The Bullets were still within seven with 7:27 to play. But, moments later, with the score 95-87, the Bulls scored six unanswered points and the Bullets never caught up.

Keven Grevey said, "We figured we had to win three of five on the road, no matter who we beat. Then we can go home (where they play the Bulls on March 8) and make our own breaks. We haven't been this bad in a long time. It just happened to all of us at once."