The latest chapter in the saga of the Washington Bullets found the team -- already missing center Jeff Ruland and guard Frank Johnson -- further depleted by the loss of forwards Cliff Robinson and Tom McMillen and facing the New Jersey Nets, one of the hotter teams in the NBA.

"When I heard that Cliff and Tom weren't going to be able to play, I asked myself, 'How are we going to win this game?' " said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. Both players have the flu, and Robinson also has a strained Achilles' tendon.

But Shue has been around this team long enough to know better. In fact, anyone vaguely familiar with this season's story line knows that times of trouble often bring out the best in the Bullets. That was the case tonight as Washington won in a laugher, 116-96, at Capital Centre before 7,201.

The Bullets (20-21) were victorious primarily because of a defense that for most of the game forced the Nets (24-17) to the outside for their points.

There also was the contribution of Leon Wood. For the fourth time in his five games with the Bullets, the guard set a career high in points. Last night, Wood scored 30 to go along with eight assists (another career best) and had more fun than Cyndi Lauper and her girls could ever imagine.

"Right now I feel like I'm dreaming," said Wood. "Sooner or later, I know that I have to come down to earth, but right now I'm in heaven."

The Bullets' plan to drop their guards down into the low post area on defense proved successful, since, except for some bombs from forward Mike O'Koren, the Nets lacked a shooting touch from the outside.

On the few occasions when the Nets did venture into the lane, the Bullets' defense often made them regret it. In one incredible fourth-quarter sequence, center Manute Bol (who had nine blocked shots in the game) rejected an attempt by New Jersey's Mickey Johnson. Undaunted, Johnson picked up the loose ball and tried it again, only to have this one swatted away by Charles Jones.

Jeff Turner picked up the ball and shot, only to have Bol pounce upon it again. That was followed by two more Bol rejections on a pair of Albert King efforts.

According to the official scorers, the five blocks came within a span of 13 seconds, but what made it even more devastating was the fast-break basket scored by Wood at the other end a short time later.

Rarely has a player had such an immediate effect on a team. He also has fit in well with the guard-oriented Washington offense.

Jeff Malone scored 25 points for the Bullets and Gus Williams added 17. The fourth member of the corps, Dudley Bradley, also finished in double figures with 10 points, giving the back court 82 points on the night.

"Gene is using his guards very well," said Nets Coach Dave Wohl. "When Manute is in the game they're really playing four on five offensively, but those guys are able to break down defenses one-on-one. Down the road they're going to go as far as their guards take them."

Actually, the idea was to merely survive until the return of Ruland. As has often been the case since the center went down in mid-December, Shue said, the approach to last night's game was "to just walk it down the floor and try to limit the total possessions of the game."

That worked well enough in the first half, when the team took a 48-41 lead. That might have been the Nets' best opportunity for victory because the Bullets were playing for the most part with Jones at center in relief of Bol, who was in foul trouble. Yet neither Darryl Dawkins nor Mike Gminski was able to make much of an impact.

The final 24 minutes was when the fun really began, and most of it was generated by Wood, who scored a pair of three-point field goals and set up a three-point play for Malone with a flashy between-the-legs pass.

If such moves seem different, even playground-like, it's because they are. Because of his lack of playing time with the Philadelphia 76ers, his former team, Wood was forced to go to the streets and gyms to work on his game.

"I got the okay from former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, so I'd go to places like St. Joseph's and gyms and anywhere to play pickup games," he said. "It was mainly against college kids, but it was a chance to work out my frustrations."

Those demons apparently exorcised, the question now is, what happens for an encore?

"Beating Chicago on Sunday would be nice," said Wood. "That would put us at .500 for the year."

That game will be played at 1 p.m. Viewers are advised to stay tuned.