Lack of depth in the back court cost the Washington Bullets an opportunity to clinch fifth place tonight and now it appears the battle to avoid playing Philadelphia in the miniseries will go to the final day of the season.
When starting guards Frank Johnson and Don Collins got in foul trouble, the Bullets lost control and New Jersey rallied for a 98-94 victory that evened the teams' records at 42-38 with two games to play.
By beating the Bullets for the fourth time in six tries, New Jersey won the season series; if the teams finish the regular season tied, the Nets would gain the edge in the standings.
Atlanta, which plays home and home with fading Indiana Thursday and Friday, is a half-game behind the Bullets at 41-38. The Hawks end their season against the Bullets Sunday afternoon at Capital Centre; the loser of that game probably will finish sixth and face Philadelphia.
Four straight foul shots in the last eight seconds clinched the victory for New Jersey, but the issue had really been settled when the Bullets fell behind by 16 points early in the fourth quarter.
A stretch in which they outscored the winners, 13-2, brought the Bullets back within five, 88-83, but they never regained the upper hand they held early in the game.
The Bullets moved to an 11-point lead and still were in control, 31-22, early in the second period when Coach Gene Shue was forced to use John Lucas and Garry Witts in the back court because Kevin Grevey is sidelined with a pulled groin muscle. Johnson committed three fouls in the first eight minutes and Collins committed his third with 10:14 left in the first half.
Both Lucas and Witts were reluctant to shoot and New Jersey took advantage of the gap in the Bullets' offense to take a 47-45 lead at intermission as Ray Williams made a three-point shot at the buzzer.
"We had an excellent flow to the game, then we got in foul trouble and the whole complexion of the game changed," Shue said. "We were in good shape and everything was working well until then."
In addition to committing too many fouls, the Bullets failed to make use of their own opportunities at the foul line, missing seven of their first 14 free throws.
Substitute Darwin Cook scored eight quick points against Witts and his last short base line jumper put the Nets in front, 39-37. Following two more ties, and a pair of one-point leads by the Bullets, Williams made his desperation shot to give the Nets their halftime lead.
There were eight ties in the third quarter as the Bullets kept pace by sinking seven of their first 11 shots. The Nets scored eight of 10 points in a two-minute stretch to pull in front, 68-64. After Jeff Ruland's layin, James Bailey and Williams scored to give the Nets a 72-66 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Then came the sloppy stretch that cost the Bullets the game. Collins committed three turnovers in 1:34, twice being stripped of the ball, then fumbling out of bounds. The Nets scored 12 straight points and seemed to have command, 84-68.
"That was a very important stretch, but we still came back," Shue said, pointing out that the Bullets rallied within two points (92-90) on Greg Ballard's three-point play with 1:16 to play.
By that point, however, both Collins and Johnson had fouled out and the Bullets had to depend entirely on their front court to score. Collins went out with 2:27 remaining and Johnson left with 1:44 to play.
"I knew I had five fouls, but if I didn't think I could get there in time, I wouldn't have tried," Collins said of the blocking foul on the base line against a driving Williams.
"We played well," said Collins, who led the Bullets' scorers with 20 points. "A call here and a call there and it could have been different."
Greg Ballard, the team's leading rebounder with eight, said the difference was the Bullets' lack of aggressive rebounding.
"I think our defense was fine and our offense was fine, but we have to be more physical on the boards," he said, referring to the Nets' 50-37 rebounding advantage.
Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists despite playing only 33 minutes after getting in early foul trouble.
"If we meet them next week in the playoffs, we won't play them any differently," Johnson said. "We played well enough to win tonight except for our fouls. We were in control and, suddenly, the game switched just like that."
As usual, Ray Williams led the Nets' offense, scoring 23 points. Cook had 19. Buck Williams led all rebounders with 15.
The Nets will play Boston here Friday night, then conclude their season Saturday night at Detroit, which was eliminated from the playoffs tonight.