Scoring droughts, turnovers and missed free throws in the final minutes couldn't stop the surging Washington Bullets tonight.

Their fourth straight victory, a 97-96 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, allowed the Bullets to pick up a game on the Atlanta Hawks in the battle for the final playoff spot in the NBA Eastern Conference.

Atlanta (37-34) lost to the New York Knicks, 104-87, tonight.

"We're only three games down," said a visibly pleased Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "It's still an uphill battle for us, but we're winning.

"We're just doing terrific. We're hanging in there and we're winning. We have been playing real well before this, but we were just missing. Now we're getting the results we have worked for."

The Bullets (33-36) won their third in a row on this road trip despite losing starting forward Greg Ballard. He suffered a muscle strain in his back early in the second quarter and did not return.

But guard Ricky Sobers helped pick up some of the slack with 29 points, making 12 of 18 shots from the field. Jeff Ruland had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Rick Mahorn had 15 points to go with his game-high 14 rebounds.

The Bullets trailed throughout most of the game before finally overtaking the Central Division leaders for good, 84-82, on two free throws by Sobers with 7:57 left.

They stretched that lead to 97-92 with 1:37 left before Milwaukee, playing without injured starters Sidney Moncrief and Bob Lanier, took advantage of Bullet mistakes to pull within 97-96 with 20 seconds left.

Milwaukee held the ball for the last shot, but Marques Johnson's 17-footer with five seconds left missed. Ruland got the rebound and was immediately fouled by Alton Lister.

Ruland had made all eight of his free throws until that time, but missed both. Milwaukee got the rebound and immediately called time with two seconds left.

Steve Mix passed inbounds to Lister, but Lister's pass inside to Junior Bridgeman was batted away by Mahorn at the buzzer.

Shue pointed to the Bullets' ability to compensate for the loss of Ballard. "We like to run off our screens with him (Ballard)," Shue said. "But Sobers had a fine game and we were still able to get position inside."

The Bullets have been struggling at the free throw line, but tonight they made 19 of 22. "We've been practicing from the line steadily," said Ruland, who added, "I can't explain why I missed those two shots."

Ruland said the Bullets had been playing well for the two weeks before the road trip. "We just hadn't been getting enough to win. We seemed to always be two or three points down at the end. Maybe we're turning things around."