The play was run exactly the way Coach Gene Shue designed it during the timeout. When Ricky Sobers released the ball, the Bullets watched his high-arching three-point attempt go toward the basket.
The Atlanta Hawks, on the strength of 11 fourth-quarter points by former Bullet Wes Matthews and a three-point play from rookie Dominique Wilkins with 28 seconds remaining, defeated the Bullets, 91-89, tonight at the Omni.
Sobers' near-miss wasn't the only thing that didn't go the Bullets' way in the final minutes. Jeff Ruland, who scored 25 points and had 13 rebounds, fouled out with 2 minutes 21 seconds remaining. And Greg Ballard, who had made 15 of 22 shots and scored 30 points, missed two 14-footers in the last 90 seconds as the Bullets lost for the seventh time in the last eight games.
They have also lost 14 of their last 15 on the road and with a 25-32 record, are 2 1/2 games behind the Knicks in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"This is a very disappointing game," said Shue, "because we did everything we needed to to win. We had control of it and lost it right there at the end. This is a game of breaks and I guess this one just wasn't meant to be ours."
The Bullets led by 11 points in the first half, but because of their lack of depth, starting wearing down, as they have in the past few weeks.
Matthews made an 18-footer to give the Hawks an 85-84 lead. Rick Mahorn, who didn't make a field goal all night, made one of two free throws on the Bullets' next possession to tie the score.
Ruland then scored on a hook shot in the lane and after Mike Glenn missed a jumper for Atlanta, Ruland made two free throws after being fouled by Dan Roundfield.
That gave the Bullets an 89-85 lead with 2:21 remaining.
They never scored again.
Ruland fouled out with 2:08 left while trying to grab a loose ball in front of Wayne (Tree) Rollins, and Matthews eventually made a 20-footer off that possession to cut the Bullets' lead to two points.
Ballard missed a jumper and after the Hawks failed to score on their next possession, too, the Bullets were called for a 24-second violation, giving the ball back to the Hawks with 41 seconds to play.
Atlanta ran a play for Wilkins in a low post to the right of the basket. Once the ball went in to him, Sobers came over to double team, but Wilkins turned away from Sobers and leaned into Ballard with an offbalance 12-foot jump shot that bounced up off the rim and then fell down through as Ballard was called for a foul.
Wilkins made the foul shot for a 90-89 Atlanta lead.
After a timeout, the Bullets got Ballard free for a 14-footer, but with Roundfield flying by him, the shot hit the rim and bounced over it. Johnny Davis ran it down in the corner and called timeout with seven seconds left.
The Bullets quickly fouled Matthews after the timeout, but he made only one of two shots, setting the stage for Sobers' three-point attempt at the end.
"We were going for the win all the way and we got the shot we wanted," said Shue. "It just didn't fall. That's the way things go when you're on a streak like this."
Wilkins led the Hawks (30-29) with 17 points.
The Bullets showed the signs of weariness tonight, but won't get any rest as they now face the defending NBA champion Los Angles Lakers Friday night at Capital Centre.