Whether the pace is fast or slow, the Washington Bullets can't win.

A slower pace kept them competitive tonight against the New Jersey Nets, but the hot shooting of forwards Mike O'Koren (25 points) and Buck Williams (21 points, 11 in the fourth quarter) handed the Bullets their fourth straight defeat and fifth of the young season, 99-88.

The Bullets (2-5) will try to end that streak Thursday night at Capital Centre against the Los Angeles Clippers.

For those who remember the plodding Bullets of yesteryear, this was a vintage type of defeat. Jeff Ruland (22 points, 17 rebounds) played the entire 48 minutes and Washington struggled on an off night by small forward Greg Ballard (four points, one rebounds, early foul trouble). Gus Williams scored 26 points, but he needed 32 shots to do it.

In the second half, the Nets, who also are struggling, got away with playing a zone that double- and triple-teamed Ruland, and Coach Gene Shue yelled incessantly at officials Jim Capers and Bill Oakes to call the Nets for an illegal defense. "It was pretty obvious," said Ruland.

But all they called in the second half was a technical foul on assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff as Ruland, who had scored 14 points with five minutes left in the first half, hardly touched the ball.

The Bullets made only 12 of 36 second-half shots, but this was not a loss Shue had any intention of blaming on his beleaguered troops or the referees.

"We didn't let it skip away," Shue said. "This was a game where the Nets won it. The Nets played a strong game tonight. We were double-teaming and they were hitting the open people and making the shots . . . We are struggling, gentlemen."

Said Ruland: "It's like going down for the third time."

As for O'Koren and Williams, who outscored Washington's starting forwards by 40 points ("You can't score if you aren't in the game," said Ballard), they were the only regular starters in the New Jersey lineup at the opening tap at Byrne Arena.

Center Darryl Dawkins, still in traction in a Newark, N.J., hospital for back spasms, replaced Albert King on the disabled list today, and guard Otis Birdsong was a late scratch because of a bruised knee. The reactivated King, who also has had back spasms, played 13 minutes and had four points and four rebounds in his first action of the season.

But the night belonged to O'Koren, who kept the Nets in contention during the middle of the game, and Buck Williams, who was uncanny in making turnaround jump shots over Rick Mahorn in the fourth quarter.

"They had some people who shot better than they normally do," said Ruland. "Rick Mahorn was in Buck's face, and 79 out of 82 games, he's not going to shoot like that. He's a great player, but not on the turnaround jump shot."

During a stretch in which the Nets expanded an 82-78 lead to 96-86, New Jersey made seven jump shots in nine possessions, including three tough turnaround jumpers by Williams and three long jumpers by Micheal Ray Richardson (16 points).

"I had a sore back in exhibitions and I wasn't able to play as much. I was rusty offensively," said Williams, explaining his 38.8 percent shooting before tonight. "I'm getting my touch back. I have a turnaround jump shot. Not like tonight, but I have a turnaround jumper. I thought Mahorn played super defense, but some nights you're going to get hot. Tonight was my night."

But it was O'Koren who got the Nets in position for Williams' heroics. After Ballard and Mahorn had gone to the bench in the first quarter with three fouls each, both Buck Williams and Richardson were out with three fouls when O'Koren got hot.

Washington had a 45-38 lead when O'Koren drew a foul from Darren Daye and made a three-point play on a driving left-handed layup down the lane. He also hit a three-point goal that brought the Nets within 49-47 and made the first half a 51-51 standoff with a driving layup with two seconds to play.

He also had six points in the first seven minutes of the third quarter.

"Best game he's played since I've been here," said Coach Stan Albeck.

"Best game since my rookie season," said O'Koren, a four-year veteran.

"If it wasn't for O'Koren's contribution (in the middle part of the game), we probably would have lost," Buck Williams said.

After a first half in which the Bullets outrebounded the Nets by eight and held them to four offensive rebounds (resulting in just two points), the Nets had seven offensive-rebound baskets in the second half.

Shue attributed the turnaround to the Nets being able to take advantage of isolation plays at power forward, a position decimated by Cliff Robinson's absence, and at small forward, where Ballard was a holdout the entire preseason. Thus, the Nets spread the Washington defense and made it easier to get offensive rebounds.

Of Ballard, Shue said, "Greg is really suffering from not being in camp. He had a couple of flashy games when he shot well. Basically, we're getting beaten at those two (forward) positions."

Ballard disagreed, blaming tonight's problems on his early foul trouble. "It's very important," he said. "If you're not in the flow of the game, you can't make things happen."