Albert King drove the middle of the lane for an uncontested dunk with five seconds left to lift the New Jersey Nets to their most important victory this season, a heart-skipping 98-96 decision over the Washington Bullets tonight at Meadowlands Arena.

The victory moved the Nets (38-36) one-half game ahead of the Bullets (37-36) into fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta, which the Bullets play Saturday night at the Omni, lost to Boston tonight, so the Hawks (36-37) remained one game behind in sixth place. The top six teams in the conference qualify for the playoffs.

Greg Ballard had tied the game at 96 with a three-point basket with nine seconds remaining, and New Jersey called time to set up a play. The Bullets also set their defense, but became confused as to what defense they were in, making King's game-winning basket look like a gift.

King passed inbounds to Buck Williams, and when Spencer Haywood moved to double-team him, Williams threw it back to King, who drove 20 feet to the basket for the dunk. No Bullet contested the shot.

"We were supposed to be playing a straight man-to-man, but for some reason, we trapped," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "Buck made a good pass, but we never should have tried to trap him."

Haywood thought he was supposed to double-team the ball once the pass was made inbounds, "and we would be in a zone underneath."

It didn't work that way.

"I turned around after Buck made the pass back and all I saw was King driving down the lane and dunking with no one there to stop him," Haywood said.

"I'm taking much of the responsibility for this loss because this was a big game for us and my teammates were looking for me to lead them and I didn't have a good overall game," he said. "I'm not talking about that last play, but the whole game. I feel I let them down, but that isn't going to happen again."

Haywood made only five of 15 shots and had four rebounds, but he scored eight of his points in the final period.

Even after King's dunk, the Bullets had time and a chance to tie, but Kevin Grevey missed an off-balance jumper from the key. He got his own rebound and passed the ball back to Ballard, but the game ended before he could shoot.

Just before his shot, Grevey appeared to be open for a second at the top of the key, behind the three-point line. He said he didn't have time to get his feet together, so he drove.

"It was the best shot I could get, but it was an inch too long," he said.

Ballard led the Bullets with 20 points and Don Collins finished with 17 in 14 minutes. Grevey and Haywood each had 14 points.

Ray Williams was the Nets' main strength through most of the final period, as they kept clearing out a side for him and letting him go one-on-one against Grevey, Collins or whomever. He had 12 points in the period and gave the Nets a 96-93 lead on a drive as the 24-second clock was running out.

That set the stage for Ballard's three-pointer, which tied the score at 96-96.

Neither team led by more than five points, the Bullets leading by that many for the last time at 83-78 on a a basket by Grevey with 7:38 remaining. An 8-2 run by New Jersey, with four of the points coming from Ray Williams, who finished with 27 points, gave the Nets an 86-85 lead with 4:51 remaining. The lead changed six more times.