The New York Knicks had to play most of the game without their star rookie, Patrick Ewing, but that didn't stop them from beating the Washington Bullets, 98-94, tonight before 13,901 at Madison Square Garden.

The former Georgetown center left the game after he sprained his left ankle with only 2:30 elapsed in the first quarter.

Ewing, who was examined by the Knicks' team doctors, was not considered to be seriously injured, according to Knicks executive vice president Dave DeBusschere.

"The X-rays were negative. The ankle is very sore, but it's only a sprain," he said. "We're uncertain if he'll play tomorrow (at Detroit). We'll make that determination sometime in the morning."

Ewing was replaced by Ken Bannister, and the Knicks didn't seem to miss a beat. The second-year player dominated the inside in the first half and finished with 23 points to lead the Knicks (3-8) to the win.

Washington, also 3-8 and a loser in eight of its last nine games, was led by Cliff Robinson's 22 points, 14 of them coming in the final period.

The Bullets are home at Capital Centre on Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In the past three years, these teams have met 18 times. Because they are so familiar with each other, it generally takes something out of the ordinary to turn the game one way or the other. Tonight, Bannister appeared to be the factor. The center entered the game averaging just 7.6 points per game, but he was able to take advantage of Washington's depleted front court.

With center Jeff Ruland and forward Tom McMillen at home in Washington with injuries, the Bullets had the added misfortune of seeing Robinson and Dan Roundfield get into early foul trouble.

As a result, the Bullets seemed almost helpless at times as Bannister consistently powered his way into the middle.

As surprising as Bannister was, though, the Bullets felt that there was little reason why they couldn't have won.

"I don't care how much they jump into spots where we want to go. If we execute our plays the right way, they shouldn't be able to do anything," said Bullets guard Jeff Malone. "On my plays, I think I was open. I just missed the shots."

There was a lot of that going around among the Bullets. The team shot just 39 percent from the field, with Charles Jones (four of six) and Darren Daye (five of nine) the only players making good on more than half their field goal attempts.

At halftime, the Knicks led by 12 points, 53-41. After three quarters, that margin had been whittled to eight, 77-69. New York still was in front by that amount, 85-77, with less than seven minutes remaining.

Then things began picking up. Robinson scored on a three-point play, and Jones added a tip-in to cut the deficit to 85-83 with 4:42 to play. The score fluctuated between one and three points over the next four minutes.

Trailing by 94-91 with 29 seconds to play, the Bullets fouled New York's Darrell Walker. A 45 percent free-throw shooter entering the game, the guard missed both shots, whereupon the Bullets took a quick timeout.

Nine seconds later, though, just as he was about to attempt a game-tying three-point field goal, Malone was called for stepping out of bounds on the sidelines. Once again, the team fouled Walker, but this time the guard converted both shots, putting the Knicks up, 96-91.

With five seconds to play, Robinson hit a three-pointer for Washington, but Louis Orr clinched the game for New York two seconds later with two more free throws.

"I thought we had a real opportunity tonight with Ewing out of the game, but we just let Bannister get away from us in the first half," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "I thought we played very, very hard out there tonight. We did some good things. It's just that we're having problems scoring right now. We're just struggling to stay alive."