It doesn't seem too far back that Bulls Coach Paul Westhead was talking about his team getting into its "playoff posture."

Trouble was, the Bulls never could get their act straightened out.

Chicago officially withdrew from the playoff picture tonight at Chicago Stadium by losing to the Washington Bullets, 102-96, before an announced crowd of 5,256.

The victory was the third straight for the Bullets (32-36). But then, beating the Bulls (24-46) is getting to be old hat to Washington, which did it five times in six tries this season.

"Tonight we played good defense, and we had to," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "We had a comfortable lead with three minutes left to go and wound up fighting for our lives."

The Bulls, who have lost three in a row, fell behind, 86-75, with 9:41 to play before they began the first of two fourth-quarter comebacks. They narrowed the Bullets' lead to 88-86 before Washington responded by scoring the next eight points as the Bulls went 3:48 without scoring.

The Bulls, however, weren't quite gone, a fact Washington seemed to forget. By the time rookie Rod Higgins (18 points) made two free throws, the Bullets' lead was trimmed to 96-94 with 58 seconds left.

Shue called a timeout and his plan was simple--get the ball to Jeff Ruland. Ruland, who has keyed the Bullets' playoff push, scored 27 points--19 in the second half--and got 15 rebounds. When he got the ball on the base line, he turned on Bulls center Dave Corzine (16 points and 12 rebounds) and calmly made a 12-footer to put the Bulls out of their misery.

"Jeff Ruland has been sensational the last month," Shue said. "He had a great second half. When Spencer (Haywood) retired, Jeff stepped in and has done a great job. We go to him a lot down low."

Ruland, who has averaged 25.4 points and 12.1 rebounds during the last 16 games, was dominant in the third quarter when he scored 15 points and had seven rebounds as the Bullets erased a 48-43 halftime deficit.

"Now that I'm playing 40 minutes, I get more into the tempo of the game," Ruland said. "My game is to rebound and give out assists. Tonight I got a lot of points down low."

Ruland didn't really do it all by himself. Don Collins came up with a season high 31 points--23 in the second half--and steady Greg Ballard had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

"I play the base line best," Collins said. "I'm the small forward so I can go there with this team. They got me the ball and Jeff did a great job."

"When we had it down to two points they went inside to their strength--Ruland," Westhead said. "He hit a big, big basket for them. Ballard was great in the first half and Collins picked it up in the second half.

"Their second shots took their toll. There were just too many times when we forced them into a bad shot and one of their big guys picked it up and put it in. If there was any key thing, that probably highlights it."

Some highlight.