The Washington Bullets refused to lose tonight, continuing their improbable drive toward the playoffs with a 100-97 triumph over the New Jersey Nets.
Their seventh straight victory brought them to .500, at 36-36, for the first time since early January. And, most important, they closed to within one game of the Atlanta Hawks in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks (38-36) lost to Philadelphia tonight, 120-113.
"We just hung tough and stuck together at the end," said Greg Ballard, who played after missing three games because of a sore back. He made 11 of 17 shots and scored 22 points. "We aren't thinking about anything but winning, and we're going to keep finding ways to do it."
The Bullets began the fourth period with a 10-point lead, only to have the Nets slowly cut into it. Michael Ray Richardson scored on a fast break with 1:39 left and was fouled by Jeff Ruland, his free throw cutting Washington's lead to 98-97.
After Richardson stole Ricky Sobers' pass, Albert King missed a jumper, Buck Williams rebounded for the Nets and they called time with 40 seconds left.
Then Sobers forced Richardson into an off-balance 16-footer that was short and rebounded by Ruland. The Bullets ran down the 24 second clock, but as Ruland tried to drive by Darryl Dawkins, he dribbled the ball off his own foot and out of bounds with nine seconds left.
After a timeout, the Nets quickly got the ball to King. Ballard forced him to the baseline, away from where he wanted to go and, with a hand in his face, made King take a tough angle shot that bounded off the side of the rim to Ruland, who was fouled by Richardson.
Before the Bullets could inbound the ball, Richardson fouled Frank Johnson. Under NBA rules, a technical foul is called when a player is fouled away from the ball in the final minute of play.
Sobers made the foul shot for a 99-97 lead and, after the Bullets inbounded the ball, he was fouled by Dawkins. He made only the first of his two shots, Mike Gminski rebounded the miss and called timeout with one second left.
The Nets got the ball to Richardson for a three-point attempt from the left corner, but it hit the rim.
"We're really on a roll," said Coach Gene Shue. "We just hung in. We had a lot of turnovers, but we played solid defense all night. Not only was this our seventh win in a row, but it was the fourth straight on the road, and we're winning against good teams. We're playing hard and tough and now we're at .500 and tied with Atlanta in the loss column and we have another game left with them."
The Bullets shot 59 percent, but committed 28 turnovers.
Ruland dominated play inside with 26 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Sobers had 20 points. King was high for the Nets with 24.
Charles Davis had replaced Ballard the previous two games, but he hurt his back Tuesday. He was examined at Sibley Hospital earlier in the day, diagnosed as having strained ligaments, and will miss at least two games.