The Washington Bullets stumbled and fumbled a game away tonight, and possibly their playoff hopes as well.
The New Jersey Nets, losers of seven in a row and going nowhere fast, rallied in the fourth period to stun the Bullets, 109-104, at Rutgers Athletic Center. The Bullets dropped two games behind the Chicago Bulls in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association.
"It was a very, very disappointing loss," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "The idea of playing defense is to force the other team to do what we want, but we didn't force them into anything. The game was there for the taking and we didn't take it. We didn't deserve to win."
Both Chicago and Washington have nine games remaining. The Bullets, 35-38, play the Indiana Pacers Thursday night at the Capital Centre. The Bulls, 37-36, are idle until Friday, when they face the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
If the Bullets and Bulls finish the season tied, the Bulls would go to the playoffs because they won the season series between the two, 5-1.
The Bullets started out badly tonight, and even though they got untracked in spurts, as Shue tried every conceivable combination of players, they could never come up with the big plays they needed down the stretch.
Rookie Don Collins scored a career-high 27 points and Mitch Kupchak had 22 as a reserve, but it wasn't enough to offset an incredible all-around performance by New Jersey's Cliff Robinson and late-game heroics of Darwin Cook and Edgar Jones.
Robinson scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half. He also had 15 rebounds and six assists.
Cook shot six-for-six from the floor in the fourth quarter and finished with 21 points. The 6-foot-3 guard also blocked four shots.
Jones scored 14 points and blocked five shots, two of them in the final 10 seconds.
Kevin Porter, who has been the steadiest and most valuable Bullet virtually all season long, committed four turnovers in the first quarter as the Bullets fell behind by 11. They shot four for 23 from the floor in the quarter.
They recovered with a lineup of Kupchak, Bob Dandridge, Collins, Kevin Grevey and Elvin Hayes, and actually built a 10-point lead in the third period.
But with Robinson running circles around Kupchak, Hayes and every other Bullet who dared challenge him, the Nets closed to within four by the end of the quarter.
Cook made a 10-footer, and after a turnover by Kupchak, Robinson made a dunk for an 82-81 lead for the Nets. He gave them a cushion with a 14-footer with 10 minutes to play, and they never trailed again.
New Jersey had a 10-point lead, 96-86 with 6:17 left, but the Bullets still had a chance to pull out the game. With Collins scoring virtually at will on Newlin, the Bullets crept closer and closer. A layup by Kupchak and two free throws by Collins got them within 102-101 with 1:27 remaining.
The Bullets got the ball back when Kupchak stole it from Newlin, but Porter, who committed eight turnovers, got caught up in the air with nothing to do and nowhere to go and ended up throwing the ball away. He then committed his sixth personal foul trying to get it back.
Cook made one free throw for a 103-101 lead. Jones got the rebound after Cook missed his final attempt and dunked it for a 105-101 New Jersey lead with 50 seconds left.
Two more free throws by Collins got the Bullets back to within two with 41 seconds to go, but Newlin made a 20-footer 18 seconds later to get the lead back to 107-103.
Collins was again fouled by Newlin. He made the first free throw, but missed the second, with Jones rebounding.
Unseld stole the ball and got it to Collins under the basket, but Jones recovered and blocked his shot and then blocked Andre McCarter's follow, starting a fast break for Newlin that accounted for the margin of victory.
Elsewhere in the NBA:
Moses Malone scored a career-high 51 points to lead the Houston Rockets past the Golden State Warriors, 109-102.
In other games it was Philadelphia 115, New York; Boston 122, Milwaukee 108; Detroit 100, Atlantia 97; Seattle 101, Cleveland 95.