Another reason why the defense has become more porous is that the catalyst, Rick Mahorn, has had a bone bruise in his right ankle. The second-year center, the team's leading shot-blocker, missed two games and limped briefly through another.

"I'd like to get back where we're holding teams in the 90s again," Shue said. "Naturally, as you score more, you're going to give up more, but we're more successul playing at a slower pace."

Before losing to Phoenix, the Bullets were averaging 123 points a game over a five-game period, compared to their season's average of 103. Instead of the Bullets' relying on Greg Ballard, Jeff Ruland and Grevey for most of their points, forward Spencer Haywood and Lucas are contributing more.

Defense is tedious work, and after 59 games there is a tendency for the players to lose their aggressiveness. This is exactly what Shue is trying to prevent.

"We're not an aggressive team by nature," he said. "I mean, the players aren't really the aggressive type and we don't have a lot of quickness. A lot of times, the quicker teams look more aggressive just because they're getting to more loose balls."

Another major problem for the Bullets is their puzzling inability to win at home. They are one of only seven teams in the NBA with a winning road record (15-14), but have won just 13 of 30 at Capital Centre.

Lucas, the team's No. 1 optimist, prefers to dismiss the listless effort against Phoenix and look ahead to this weekend.

"It's happened before and then we've come back to play well," he said. "This weekend is very important. I think we need 40 wins to make the playoffs and we don't want to finish sixth and have to play Philadelphia in a miniseries.

"Fourth or fifth place really doesn't make much difference," the veteran playmaker continued. "We can beat New Jersey up there just as easily as down here. There won't be a home-court advantage in that series."