Unlike other nights on the Bullets' four-game road trip, when they took, then lost, sizable leads, tonight Washington had to come back from a large deficit.

Down by 17 points in the second quarter, Washington came back to within two points with two minutes to play, but fell short, Kansas City escaping with a 103-98 victory. Forward Eddie Johnson led the winners with 27 points, the same number scored by the Bullets' Gus Williams.

Washington's second consecutive loss gave the team a 22-19 record at the halfway point of the season. One year ago, the Bullets had a 17-24 mark.

Perhaps for that reason, along with the fact that his team played the last three games of the trip without Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson, Coach Gene Shue wasn't discouraged by this loss.

"Our team did a helluva job, the effort was there," Shue said. "It's been a hard road trip and our injuries hurt, but the guys played hard."

That the Bullets fell behind early by such a large margin wasn't surprising. This was the first time this season they played back-to-back games on the road. And the first game was played in high-altitude Denver, renowned for sapping the strength out of teams.

The situation was tailor-made for the Kings, who ended a six-game losing streak. And, without Ruland and Robinson, the Bullets were in rebounding trouble. For the game, the Kings held a 56-44 advantage, getting 15 offensive rebounds.

Still, down by 81-67 entering the fourth period, the Bullets were able to make a run at Kansas City. Eight straight points, four by Williams, cut the margin to 94-92 with 2:34 to play.

"That was just remarkable, the fact that we were in the game at that point," Shue said. "Our inside game wasn't working, our outside people weren't hitting, but all I know is that we had a chance to win."

Unfortunately for the Bullets, Johnson quickly took care of that. He scored the next five points and seven of nine to keep Washington at bay.

"We just blossomed down the stretch in terms of the confidence factor. Eddie Johnson showed a lot of heart," said Kansas City Coach Phil Johnson. "He had a touch of the flu, but he made big shots and free throws.

"It also helped us that they were missing some people. When we played out in Washington (a 97-92 victory by the Bullets Nov. 21), Robinson just killed us."

Perhaps just as important to the Kings' cause tonight was guard Reggie Theus. Although he missed eight of 10 shots, the guard made his presence felt with 11 assists, many flashy.

"My scoring has been down all season, but that's not as important on this team," he said. "We've got enough people to shoot the ball. What we need is an up-tempo player who can get things going for them, and that's what I'm trying to provide."

As for the Bullets, there's no rest for the weary. After traveling back to Washington Sunday, they will play three games in the next five nights, beginning Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Capital Centre.

"You can't be too upset because it's been a long trip," forward Greg Ballard said. "But we need to get a chance to recover and get healthy.

"Tomorrow is a travel day across half the country, then we have to be ready to play again on Monday and Tuesday."