Gene Shue used only eight players tonight, making his substitutions both timely and wisely, and the result was a 104-101 victory over the surprisingly tough Cleveland Cavaliers.

Seven of the eight Bullets who played scored in double figures, with Greg Ballard finishing as high scorer with 23 points. Washington won its third straight game, moved two games above .500 (36-34) and stayed a game ahead of Atlanta and New Jersey in the fight for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Nets (36-36) beat the New York Knicks tonight; the Hawks (35-35) were idle.

The Cavaliers (15-55) have the worst record in the league, but came out like a playoff contender before an intimate Coliseum crowd of 4,427 and took a 10-point lead in the first period. But the Bullets caught up in the second quarter, pulled away in the third and held off the Cavaliers in the fourth.

The final score was close because Cleveland's Ron Brewer, who finished with a game-high 29 points, made two three-point field goals in the last 30 seconds.

Shue's key moves tonight were at the point guard position, where he used Frank Johnson, John Lucas and Don Collins. All made major contributions.

Johnson started, but was awful in the first half, missing the only two shots he took from the field and getting only one assist in seven minutes. With the Bullets down, 13-7, and not running their offense, Shue summoned Lucas off the bench and he settled them down. They still trailed, 26-16, with 50 seconds left in the first period, but scored six points in those final seconds.

Lucas had two of those points and assisted on Kevin Grevey's field goal. Grevey also had two free throws in that run.

Cleveland went ahead, 40-36, late in the second period, with the help of their big back court of Brewer (6-foot-4) and Bobby Wilkerson (6-7). So Shue went to Grevey (6-5) and Collins (6-6). They led the Bullets on a 14-8 run that brought them a 50-48 halftime lead. Collins had six points and four assists in the half; Lucas, four points and five assists, and Grevey, 11 points and two assists.

Shue went back to Johnson in the third period and the rookie, who has been struggling lately, scored 11 points as the Bullets built a 13-point lead. When Johnson tired, Shue went back to Lucas.

Johnson scored the last seven points of an 11-0 run that gave them a 74-61 lead with 2:15 left in the third period.

The Bullets' rally started with two free throws by Grevey, followed by two more from Spencer Haywood. Then Johnson took over.

He scored on a fast break after an assist from Grevey. After a miss by Cleveland, he scored on a drive down the lane, was fouled by Geoff Huston. He made the free throw and then stole Scott Wedman's inbounds pass and scored a layup.

"I feel pretty good . . . for a change," said Johnson, whose playing time and productivity have been on a decline. "Maybe I concentrated a little more tonight than I had been."

Shue said he had no doubt about going back to Johnson in the third period, despite his first-half performance. "We need Frank and we need to get his confidence up," said Shue. "It wouldn't have done any good to not go back to him."

The Bullets were outrebounded, 57-46, with Cliff Robinson getting a career-high 19. Rick Mahorn (11 points), still troubled by a sore ankle, led the Bullets' rebounders with 13, and Ballard had 11.

"My ankle is finally getting back to where I was before," said Mahorn.

"I think Rick played his best game in a long time," said Shue. "He was alive and really helping out everyone else."

This was the first game of a critical five in seven nights for the Bullets. They face Detroit at Capital Centre Tuesday, Boston in Boston Wednesday and then have games Friday at New Jersey and Saturday at Atlanta.

"This is just the way we wanted to get started on this stretch," said Shue.