The stage was set for the Washington Bullets. Coach Gene Shue was just one win shy of NBA career victory number 700 while Gus Williams needed six steals to break an all-time NBA record.

A nationwide cable-television audience waited for the Bullets to strut their stuff against the Suns. But instead, Washington merely got stuffed, Phoenix casting a pall on the opener of a three-game road trip with a 116-86 rout.

"Obviously, it wasn't a good game," said Shue. "The other night (an 85-82 loss to Utah at Capital Centre Tuesday), we couldn't make a shot and tonight it carried over. We weren't smooth and it was hard to go to anyone for production."

That was an understatement. The team set a season low in shooting for the second consecutive game, tonight hitting just 37 percent of its shots from the field.

In addition, Phoenix outrebounded the visitors by a 56-39 margin and had eight players score in double figures. Another, Maurice Lucas, scored nine points.

Larry Nance led the Suns with 18 points. Williams, whose five steals tied Randy Smith for No. 1 on the all-time list at 1,403, was the game's high scorer with 22.

The Bullets came into the Southwest hoping to find sunshine but were met instead by a steady rain and temperatures that struggled to reach the 50-degree mark. The team took its disappointed, ugly mood into the game.

In the early going, the Bullets bumped the Suns with a physical brand of play that had many in the crowd of 10,524 -- including a group of Suns executives seated at courtside -- howling in anger.

The Bullets' bullying carried them as far as a 38-38 tie with 5:12 to play in the second period. Then, Phoenix, which had been drawing a number of fouls trying to retaliate, began running around Washington instead. Six straight points by Nance led a 17-7 run that put the Suns ahead, 55-45, at halftime.

The Bullets' futility from the field came to a head in the third period, easily the game's turning point. Washington hit on just five of 22 shots from the field in the quarter as Phoenix went on a 30-14 tear that effectively iced the game.

At one point, things got so bad for the Bullets that Shue fielded a lineup of Jeff Malone, Tom Sewell, Tom McMillen, Guy Williams and Cliff Robinson in an effort to catch lightning in a bottle.

"We couldn't get the ball down and they hit a stretch where they just took off," said Shue. "We cut their lead to eight once, but we weren't gonna get any closer than that."

By game's end, the Bullets had returned their starters to the floor, trying, in Shue's words, "to get them to do anything right out there. When we were winning there was good defense, timely shooting . . . now things aren't going as well."

The 14-9 Bullets' play in the last two games has been decidedly different from the squad that at one point won 12 of 14 games, a pace that Phoenix Coach John MacLeod said the team "couldn't keep up.

"It's hard to keep driving and driving like they were over the course of an 82-game schedule," he said. "But they're still a very good ball club."

Center Jeff Ruland (13 points) wasn't as charitable in his assessment of the game. "There was no defense, no ball movement. We've gone from playing well to playing poorly," he said. "You have to give them credit; they wanted the game more than we did. We'll find out what we're made of on Saturday (when the Bullets face the Los Angeles Clippers)."

By then, added assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff, the team will have begun to correct its ailments. "We're just in a bad stretch, which will happen," he said. "The important thing is to realize it -- collectively -- and to work on it the same way."