Gene Shue tried his best to downplay his 600th National Basketball Association coaching victory Friday night, a victory that put put him into an elite group that includes Red Auerbach, Red Holzman and Jack Ramsay.

Far more significant to Shue was that the 104-88 victory over New Jersey put the Bullets one game above .500 late in the season. "It's almost unbelievable," Shue said. "Thirteen games left and we're one game above .500. That is really an accomplishment for this team."

With their 35-34 record, the Bullets are in good position for the playoffs. The top six teams in each conference advance and the Bullets now have the fourth-best record in the East, behind Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

New Jersey (35-35) is only half a game back going into tonight's games and Atlanta (34-35) is one game back. Another team Shue is concerned about, Detroit (33-37), is 2 1/2 back. The Bullets have two games left with New Jersey, two with Atlanta and one with Detroit.

The Bullets' advantage over those teams right now is one game better than the standings reveal because they are 3-1 against Atlanta and Detroit and 2-2 against New Jersey. The Bullets also have the best record within the conference (23-22) among those teams. In case of a tie against those teams, the Bullets would advance.

Washington begins a critical stretch of five games in seven nights tonight in Richfield, Ohio, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. After taking Monday off, they will play the Pistons at Capital Centre Tuesday and then face the streaking Celtics in Boston Wednesday. After another day off Thursday, they will play at New Jersey Friday and at Atlanta Saturday.

"This is really an exciting race for us," Shue said. "We know it's going to go down to the wire. We just have to keep winning. It's not going to be easy, but at least we're in the position where the other teams have to catch us.

"We match up well against all of them, but we also have two games left with Milwaukee and one each with Boston and Philadelphia and we haven't beaten any of those teams yet. If you count four losses there, that leaves only nine games we can win."

The team that finishes fourth gains the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, a best-of-three series against the fifth-best team. The winner will advance to the conference semifinals against the conference's top team.

The Cavaliers (15-54) have the worst record in the NBA, but one of those victories was a 100-99 decision over the Bullets Feb. 2 at Capital Centre.

The Cavaliers are on their third coach and umpteenth lineup of the season. Bill Musselman's most recent starters have been Cliff Robinson and Scott Wedman at forwards, James Edwards at center and Ron Brewer and Bob Wilkerson at guards. None were with the team last season and Robinson and Brewer began this season elsewhere.

"I don't fear a letdown or anything close to one," Shue said. "The players know the importance of every game from here on out."

Shue has been particularly pleased with the play of Spencer Haywood, who had one of his best all-around games of the season against the Nets. Haywood had a season-high 27 points on 10 of 17 shots from the field and had 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocked shots. He also limited the Nets' rookie star, Buck Williams, to 13 points and six rebounds.