The Washington Bullets defeated the Detroit Pistons at Capital Centre last night, but didn't get the help they needed from the Milwaukee Bucks in Atlanta and were eliminated from the playoff race.

With about seven minutes left in their game, the Bullets received word that the Hawks had defeated the Bucks by 17 points at the Omni to gain the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association.

Despite the news, the Bullets defeated the Pistons, 102-95. A victory tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the season finale would give Washington a 43-39 record, the same as the Hawks, but the Hawks won the season series with the Bullets.

"It hurts," said Bullets guard Frank Johnson. "We can't fault anyone but ourselves, though. We were in control, but when we lost that game to Milwaukee Thursday, all of a sudden our destiny was no longer in our hands."

The New York Knicks clinched one of the last two playoff spots Friday with a 100-83 victory over the Pistons.

The Bullets would have been assured a playoff spot, regardless of what New York or Atlanta did in their final games, if they had been able to win their last three games. But they lost to the Bucks, 97-90, and thus were forced to depend on the Bucks beating Atlanta last night.

"Well," said Coach Gene Shue, "it didn't happen. We played great down the stretch and we kept the pressure on Atlanta and New York all of the way. All we could do tonight was win our game and hope Atlanta would lose."

The Atlanta-Milwaukee game started 25 minutes earlier than the Bullets' and the players were watching the scoreboard for updates most of the game.

When Atlanta's game finally was over, the Bullets' faces fell, But the crowd of 10,427 gave them a two-minute standing ovation.

The victory was the Bullets' 13th in their last 16 games.

"It would be impossible for any team to play better than we did down the stretch," said Shue. "We peaked at the right time. It's just unfortunate that we had all those problems earlier.

"It was that one stretch when we lost nine in a row that put us out of the playoffs. It was during the weak part of our schedule and as a result we dug ourselves too big a hole."

"I wish we had realized earlier how good we are," said Johnson.

With one eye on the Atlanta-Milwaukee result, the Bullets played a sporadic first half. And even though the Pistons were playing without all-star guard Isiah Thomas, who stayed home with a bruised knee, Detroit led, 58-56, at halftime.

The Bullets got untracked late in the third period when the defense started an 8-0 run that broke them away from a 72-72 tie.

Steals and fast-break baskets by Johnson and Don Collins accounted for four points. Johnson also had a 20-footer and Jeff Ruland made two free throws in that stretch.

Detroit cut the lead to four points late in the period, but Greg Ballard made an 18-footer to give Washington an 84-78 lead going into the final period.

The Bullets opened that quarter with a 4-0 run on baskets by Ballard and Ricky Sobers to take a 10-point lead, and they coasted the rest of the way.

Six Bullets scored in double figures, with Ballard leading at 20. Ruland had 18 points and 16 rebounds.

Kelly Tripucka and Bill Laimbeer each had 26 points for the Pistons.

"It's a shame we aren't in it (the playoffs), because I know no one wants to have to play us," said Ballard.

Shue said he will try to beat Cleveland tonight (WDCA-TV-20 at 7 p.m.), but also will "probably use everybody."

"It'll be a tough game to play," said Ballard. "But for the first time in a long while, we have nothing to lose, so it should at least be fun."