During the opening three contests of their five-game swing west, the Washington Bullets had established a pattern of playing well through three quarters, only to falter in the latter stages of the game.

Tonight, before a crowd of 10,414 at the Sports Arena, the team tried a new tack, coming from behind to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, 96-94.

The victory was especially satisfying because Jeff Malone, the brightest spot for Washington on the trip, had his poorest night in a long, long time, making only three of 16 shots from the field and scoring 11 points.

That Washington still was able to improve its record to 25-28 could be attributed to some stellar performances from Kevin McKenna, Cliff Robinson, Jeff Ruland and Manute Bol.

McKenna, a little-used reserve guard before tonight, set a career high with 25 points, including five three-point field goals.

He scored 12 of the Bullets' 23 points in the fourth quarter, including two foul shots that provided a game-clinching 96-91 lead with five seconds left before Rory White hit a 40-footer for the Clippers at the buzzer.

Robinson made 10 of 15 field goal attempts and scored 21 points in 28 minutes.

Ruland, making his first appearance since Feb. 1, scored only six points but added seven rebounds and 10 assists.

Bol, the 7-foot-7 rookie center, was close to a triple double, scoring eight points, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking 10 shots.

Cedric Maxwell and White led Los Angeles with 17 points apiece. The loss ended a three-game winning streak for the Clippers.

Los Angeles had a chance to tie it with 90 seconds remaining, but Bol blocked a shot by Benoit Benjamin and McKenna made a 20-footer for a 91-87 lead with 72 seconds to go.

After Nixon's jumper, Malone hit a foul shot to make it 92-89, then followed a steal and stuff by Marques Johnson with two more free throws for a 94-91 lead with 13 seconds left. Nixon then missed a three-point attempt before McKenna's clinching free throws.

"I just try to go out and do the best I can whenever I get a chance," said McKenna, who received some added inspiration from a heckler in the stands.

"After I hit the third three-pointer, the guy started asking me if that was my career high," said McKenna, who joined the team from Kansas City of the Continental Basketball Association. "I told him that I was gonna career high him."

The Bullets also were bolstered by the presence of Ruland, the first time that sight has been seen since Feb. 1. The forward-center was forced to miss the following nine games because of a sore right ankle.

"It sure felt great to play again," Ruland said. "My timing was off and they were doubling me, so I tried to pass off a lot."

As for his right ankle, Ruland said, "It's pretty sore already, so I'm going to try and keep it in ice. I think I'll be able to play tomorrow, though."

The Bullet face the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night at McNichols Arena.

Ruland's return didn't help the team in the early going, the Bullets missing nine of their first 11 field goal attempts. Malone, who scored 115 points in three games last week, missed his first six shots from the field.

Ruland entered the game for the first time with 2:28 to play in the first quarter with Washington trailing, 18-12.

At the end of the period, the visitors still trailed by six, 24-18. The Clippers were led by White's seven points and Robinson had six for the Bullets.

With Malone having his shooting troubles, McKenna tried to take up the slack. He made his first three-point field goal in the opening period, then another pair early in the second to make the score 24-24 with 10 minutes to play in the half.

The Clippers came back to score the next seven points to regain the lead at 31-24 with seven minutes remaining until intermission. The Bullets responded with a 9-4 run to pull within 35-33 with 4:50 to play.

Malone hit his first field goal with 2:14 to play, making the score 41-37, Los Angeles. The all-star guard scored again a minute later to bring Washington to within two.

At the end of the half though, the Clippers led, 46-41. Maxwell led Los Angeles with 12 points and McKenna had nine for Washington.

The Bullets shot only 37 percent from the field in the first half, the first time in the first three games of the trip they had made less than half of their shots in the opening two quarters. Malone was just two for 10 from the floor.

Washington then hit its first two shots of the third quarter to cut the Clippers' lead to 46-45. Robinson continued to play effectively, scoring another seven points over the first five minutes of the period.

A free throw by the forward with 7:30 to play gave the team a 50-49 lead, the first time since the game's opening basket that the Bullets held a lead.

Given the opening, Washington was hesitant to concede its edge. Robinson, who played at the nearby University of Southern California, scored a few minutes later to extend the Bullets' lead to 62-57. But the Clippers responded with seven consecutive points to regain the lead at 64-62 with 2:14 left in the period.

After three quarters, Washington had come back to take a 73-68 lead. With nine minutes remaining in the game, Washington had expanded its advantage slightly to 79-72.

McKenna's fifth three-pointer -- which tied Houston's John Lucas for the highest number in an NBA game this season -- gave the Bullets an 89-78 lead with 4:39 left.