During the early moments of the third quarter of last night's NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Washington Bullets found themselves getting that old sinking feeling again.

As in Tuesday night's loss to the New Jersey Nets, Washington had a 10-point lead at halftime; this time, 48-38. And, as in the previous contest, bad luck and even worse play conspired to swing the game toward the opposition.

Instead of totally falling apart as they had done in the Meadowlands, the Bullets tried flirting with some intestinal fortitude last night. But the effort wasn't sustained and Washington fell to its fourth straight loss, 81-80, before 4,254.

Alvin Robertson led the Spurs (3-4) with 18 points. Washington's high scorer was Jeff Malone. The guard finished with 23 points, 17 in the second half when he and forward Cliff Robinson (22 points, 13 rebounds) were the Bullets' only offensive threats. During the first 14 minutes of the second half, Malone scored 15 of the team's 22 points.

But despite their offensive inadequacies (they shot 42 percent from the field for the game, going 15 of 41 in the second half), the Bullets were able to make a contest of the lackluster affair.

With the lead changing hands seven times in the final 4:31, the Bullets found themselves with the ball and 40 seconds remaining, trailing by one. After rotating the ball from one side of the court to the other, Malone missed a jumper.

Robertson got the rebound with 26 seconds left and San Antonio chose to let the 24-second clock expire, returning the ball to Washington with two ticks remaining. The Bullets took a timeout to get the ball at midcourt, but in an apt reflection of their evening's work, they couldn't get a shot. Dan Roundfield's inbounds pass was deflected by forward Mike Mitchell to David Greenwood, who dribbled out the clock.

In the winners' locker room, Spurs Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said, "Every game is pretty when you win." As losers are wont to do, the Bullets were saying "shut up and deal," down the hall.

Or, more accurately, the team was once again left wondering, "What is the deal?"

"We're basically not a good scoring team right now," said Coach Gene Shue. "I thought we played a strong game defensively, very strong, but we came out in the second half and just missed our shots."

An example of the difficulties the Bullets are having came in those final 4 1/2 minutes. It was then that San Antonio guard Johnny Moore scored a driving layup through traffic that barely beat the 24-second clock. The play contrasted with Washington's previous possession -- Robinson struggling to shoot an offbalance jumper between two defenders just to beat the buzzer.

Seventeen seconds after Moore's basket, Malone hit from the outside to put the Bullets ahead, 76-75. That was followed by a Spurs miss. Washington had the chance to go up by three with another basket. However, center Jeff Ruland was called for traveling. Once again milking the shot clock, the Spurs regained the lead when Greenwood hit a short jumper one second before the 24-second clock ran out. On the next possession, Malone was called for an offensive foul.

Such second-half fits and starts are becoming increasingly puzzling to Washington. "If anyone really knew what the problem was, I'm sure we'd have solved it by now," said Roundfield. "We play good in the first half and just play in the second. The execution's not the same. You know that each team is going to make a run. You just have to dig in a little deeper.

"We missed a lot of easy shots tonight. Last night, too. When you do that, you get down on yourself."

According to Shue, that sense of doubt doesn't make it easier to find some continuity. "It has been hard for us to hit the wide-open shot," he said. "They are taking away our inside game and we just haven't had a whole lot of players who we could say, 'Okay, do it.'

"We were running one play inside that we thought would work, but we were making turnovers off of it. As a coach, what do you do? Do you keep running it?"

Roundfield, a 10-year veteran, said his experience tells him that the team will see its way through the troubles. "Each squad is different," he said. "Some get together and talk, and the talk doesn't do any good. What usually happens is they just snap out of it."

Even six games into the season, one gets the impression that in the Bullets' case, it had better happen soon.