The Washington Bullets, forced to endure an all-day travel marathon, not only lost to the Detroit Pistons tonight, but they may have lost center Jeff Ruland again, too.

Scorched early and often by some hot shooting by the Pistons' Kelly Tripucka, the tired Bullets were beaten, 116-101, before 20,449 at the Silverdome.

Ruland, a center/forward who started tonight's game at power forward and scored 16 points, reinjured the right ankle that he initially hurt here on Dec. 11.

Ruland was kicked in the ankle by a member of the Pistons in a logjam underneath the basket in the third quarter. The pain was severe enough to keep him out of the game for the entire fourth quarter, and X-rays are scheduled to be taken Sunday morning in Washington.

"I don't know what to say," whispered Ruland, obviously distraught after sitting alone silently for about five minutes on a bench in a corner of the locker room. "The ankle just hurts."

The Bullets (23-24) were led by Jeff Malone's 25 points. Leon Wood came off the bench to add 21.

Tripucka, Detroit's starting small forward, had a game-high 26 points on 12-for-18 shooting. Bill Laimbeer added 23 with 16 rebounds, and Isiah Thomas scored 19 points for the Pistons (24-24).

As was the case in the Bullets' 97-88 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday, the outcome tonight was decided long before the final buzzer. In Friday's game, no Celtics starters played at all in the final 12 minutes. Tonight it was Tripucka and Laimbeer who were given the red-carpet treatment after they did the bulk of their damage in the early going.

Tripucka scored 14 points in the first period, and center Laimbeer added eight. Detroit scored the first 10 points of the game as the Bullets struggled to get their footing.

Their lack of bearings was understandable. Friday night's game against Boston ended at approximately 10 p.m., and the Bullets were scheduled to leave on an 8 a.m. flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. However, the plane was forced to circle Detroit Metro Airport, which had been closed because of icy conditions.

A short time later the flight was ordered to return to Baltimore. Upon arrival there, the team was told there would be no return trip because the flight had been canceled. Luckily, there was another flight scheduled to leave at 12:15 p.m., but the plane didn't take off until closer to 1:30.

After more circling in the Detroit area, the second flight landed and the weary team finally arrived at its hotel at 4 p.m. There was a bus scheduled to take the Bullets from the hotel to the Silverdome at 5, but it didn't get there until a half hour later. At 6:30, just one hour before game time, the team straggled into the building.

Given those circumstances, the Bullets hardly could be blamed for falling apart, particularly after the Pistons took a 10-0 lead. But Washington actually came back in the first quarter to take a 20-17 lead.

With Tripucka beating the bigger Cliff Robinson on the outside, Washington Coach Gene Shue countered with Darren Daye. At that point, the Detroit forward merely moved closer to the basket for his points, but the Bullets seemed to get better ball movement from the smaller group of players.

Even so, Detroit led by 10 after the first quarter and at halftime. In the third period the Pistons increased the margin to as much as 16 and then coasted from there, although the Bullets did manage to get as close as nine points, 104-95, with four minutes remaining. The brief flurry was snuffed by a pair of baskets by Thomas, the first a beautiful soft arcing jumper over Manute Bol.

"Detroit shot the ball very well (52 percent for the game). They're a good outside-shooting team and we're struggling," said Shue. "Our players just weren't right tonight because of the long day we had."

The Pistons were on the road in Atlanta on Friday night but had no problems getting back into town, catching a redeye after that game. That full night's rest may have been the difference in this game, according to Tripucka, who said he felt his whole team was "more comfortable."

That certainly couldn't be said for the Bullets, who, after beginning to make the readjustment of having Ruland back in the lineup, may be forced to revert to the way things were before his original injury.

"It's like being out of sync," said Shue. "We were beginning to get some continuity, but now it's going again."