After playing a nearly flawless opening 24 minutes of basketball tonight, the Washington Bullets' 21-point lead crumbled in the face of a full-court press and poor shooting and they lost, 104-99, to the Chicago Bulls.

The Bullets, who were led by Gus Williams' 18 points, shot 64 percent in the first half but missed 16 of 20 shots in scoring only 15 points in the third period. And in the final quarter, Washington managed 20 points. The Bullets shot 45 percent for the game.

"You can't score 35 points in a half and expect to win," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "The funny thing was that the shots we were getting in the third quarter were better than the ones in the first half. The difference was they were going in then."

The Bulls were led by Michael Jordan's 37 points but perhaps the game's most valuable player was reserve center Jawann Oldham. Providing an intimidating presence underneath the basket, Oldham blocked six shots. At one point, he blocked three straight shots by Rick Mahorn in the fourth quarter.

In addition, Oldham tied Jordan and Orlando Woolridge with a team-high nine rebounds. His performance led to an interesting sight in the Chicago locker room after the game, with Oldham speaking to a large group of reporters and Jordan, usually the center of attention, standing relatively alone.

"It'll be back to normal tomorrow but it was fun doing this tonight," Oldham said. "People act like they're surprised at me but there's no reason why I can't do this on a regular basis. It's what I've done throughout my career."

Throughout his four seasons in the NBA, Oldham's career has been rather obscure. When asked if he had seen the center play better, Mahorn (team-high 13 rebounds) said, "I don't think I've ever saw him play."

In that sense, there were another 10 invisi-Bulls on the floor throughout the first half. That total didn't include guard Quintin Dailey, who was serving the second of a two-game suspension for what Bulls' management called "conduct unbecoming to the team."

The lone exception was Jordan, who made six of 10 shots and scored 19 first-half points. "The others just couldn't get it going and I could, so I thought I'd try and provide some incentive to continue," he said.

Jordan spent much of the first half in a running conversation with referee Tommy Nunez, obviously frustrated over a number of missed calls. Asked if he felt he was in danger of getting called for a technical foul, Jordan replied, "I'll never get called for a technical. I just tell the refs to be sure and look at the game films when they get a chance."

He added, "In the second half, we didn't let up and kept the pressure on. For once, we had the killer instinct in the fourth quarter."

Jordan provided most of it for Chicago. His two free throws tied the game at 87 with 6:48 to play. Fifteen seconds later, Oldham made his stand. After the third block, Jordan went the length of the court for a layup to give Chicago its first lead.

Mahorn's short jumper tied it at 89 but Jordan scored five of the Bulls' next nine points as Chicago gained a 98-93 lead.

Washington closed to 102-99 after Greg Ballard's three-point field goal, but on its next possession, Dudley Bradley, playing with a pulled muscle in his hip, missed on a similar attempt. Jordan was fouled and made one of two free throws to keep Washington at bay.

The loss prevented the Bullets from regaining third place in the Atlantic Division. New Jersey, a half-game ahead of Washington, lost to Kansas City.

So the Bullets remain in fourth place going into Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Capital Centre, where the team hopes it can put together two straight halves of good basketball.

"It's a funny game, you know you can't shoot 65 percent for an entire game but things just totally turned around," said Jeff Malone. "We had some great shots in the second half but just couldn't hit them. We couldn't ask for anything better."

Both teams have been slumping in recent weeks. The Bulls had lost 11 of their previous 14 games. The Bullets have lost 11 of 15.