Losing is a hurtin' thing.

Unfortunately for the Washington Bullets, it is beginning to come with the regularity of an opening tipoff. Last night at Capital Centre, a crowd of 10,311 -- many of whom came out to hear singer Lou Rawls -- saw a number of gritty efforts by the home team go for naught as the Bullets lost their fifth straight NBA game, 117-110.

Jeff Ruland led Washington with 22 points and 21 rebounds. Guard Jeff Malone scored 21 points and Gus Williams had 15 points with 11 assists. Forward Dan Roundfield came off the bench to score another 15 points and grab 13 rebounds, helping the Bullets forge a 51-39 advantage on the boards.

In the end, however, Washington couldn't overcome the efforts of one of the NBA's best improvisers, Detroit guard Isiah Thomas. Despite being in foul trouble throughout most of the game, the Pistons' all-star performer was up to the mark, particularly in the second half when he scored 19 of his 25 points and had four of his seven assists.

Five of those points came in the game's final 1:53, transforming a 105-105 tie into a 110-105 Pistons lead. Then, as for much of the final 12 minutes, Detroit Coach Chuck Daly placed Thomas squarely on center stage, giving him the ball and almost ordering everyone else to get out of the way.

"It's Magic, or at least Little Magic, that's for sure," said Daly after the game. "He has a great emotion for the game. There are stretches where he gets into trouble, but he can respond better than most players."

Ruland, for one, thought that the magic extended beyond mere basketball. "Things were going well for us until Isiah questioned a couple of calls, then things started swinging the other way," said Ruland, a two-time all-star. "It must be more than that (being on the all-star team) because it sure as hell ain't working for me."

Then again, there is very little that seems to be going Washington's way. Last night, the Bullets unveiled a more uptempo attack, starting Darren Daye at the small-forward spot. The move appeared to be paying dividends when the team scored 57 points -- its best effort in an opening half this season -- to take a 57-50 lead.

Then again, the first two quarters of Bullets games have come to mean almost nothing. In its last three games, the team has led at intermission.

"This is the third consecutive game that we've let the other team get back into it just before halftime. Detroit must have been as happy as hell to only be down by seven points," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "We ran well during the first half. It sounds good to say that you want to do that, but it has to be sustained for the whole game."

Actually, the team held on to its effort longer than it did earlier this week in losses to New Jersey and San Antonio, even coming from behind to tie the game at 105-105 with 3:31 remaining on a long jumper by Malone. The basket was especially impressive because the team swung the ball from one side of the court to the other and back again before the shot was taken.

The play seemed to swing the game towards the Bullets, a theory that seemed to gain credence when Rick Mahorn (four points and seven rebounds in his first game since being traded from Washington to Detroit during the offseason) missed a pair of foul shots at the 2:18 mark.

On the subsequent possession, however, Ruland was called for a three-second violation, the 25th of the team's 26 turnovers. Ten seconds after that, Thomas was driving to the hoop for the first of his five consecutive points.

Shue thought what happened just before Mahorn's free throws was the turning point of the game. It was then that Washington got off a flurry of four shots, none of which found the basket. "It was like everyone wanted to shoot and none of the shots were good ones," he said. "That's the time when you run a play. The bottom line is we needed to score then and we didn't produce."

For the Pistons, crunch time means giving the ball to Thomas and watching the magic happen. "It wasn't a slow game at all, but we only had 50 at halftime. We needed to get some points," Thomas said. "Why it was me, I don't know -- things just happened that way.

"I'll take it any way I can get it. Whatever's necessary -- scoring points, getting a steal on defense -- it doesn't matter. Whatever we need, I'm going to try and get it."

The Bullets are going to have to get something of their own pretty quickly, as the road isn't likely to get any easier in the immediate future. They travel to Detroit and Boston for games next week before returning to Capital Centre to play Philadelphia a week from tonight.