The essence of the Washington Bullets' 120-108 victory over the New Jersey Nets tonight at Brendan Byrne Arena could be found in two sequences; one early in the game, one late.

In the first, in the opening quarter, Washington center Manute Bol blocked a shot, igniting a fast break that ended with guard Gus Williams taking the ball behind his back and laying it into the hoop while drawing a foul. On the Bullets' next possession, 30 seconds later, forward Cliff Robinson powered down the lane for a slam dunk.

The second peek at why the visitors were able to improve their record to 36-41 and move within a half-game of the third-place Nets in the NBA's Atlantic Division came with 8:35 to play in the game. Driving to the basket for an apparent breakaway slam, Washington's Dan Roundfield was fouled by Jeff Turner. Almost as soon as the whistle blew, the Bullets veteran turned and took a punch at Turner.

Intensity and pride, qualities that have eluded the Bullets at times this season -- such as in a 130-102 loss to the Nets at Capital Centre March 17 -- were very much in abundance tonight. In a reversal of the teams' last meeting, Washington grabbed control and never relented.

"It's getting toward that time," said Roundfield. "We've got a lot of veterans on this team and we know that it's time to start getting revved-up for the playoffs. It would be nice to pass the Nets, but regardless of who we play we have to play hard. Then again, I don't think the guys forgot that they blistered us the last time at our place."

In that game, which helped hasten the departure of Gene Shue as Bullets coach, the Nets hit 12 of their first 13 shots; tonight the Bullets blistered the nets, shooting 65 percent in the opening 12 minutes for a 38-22 lead. After that, the Nets never came closer than 10 points.

Heading the effort were Williams and forward Cliff Robinson. Of Williams' season-high 33 points, 16 came in the first quarter.

When Williams took a break, Robinson picked up the pace. Fourteen of his 30 points came in the first quarter. "We just made it awfully tough on them defensively," he said. "There wasn't much they could do; we were on a roll."

Guard Jeff Malone scored 25 points, Roundfield 18. Bol blocked five shots and grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds.

"Everybody got into a good rhythm early," said Williams. "We ran the fast break for the most part, but when we slowed it down we executed well; whoever took the shot was able to finish the play off."

"You want to see a reaction in a situation like this game," Coach Kevin Loughery said. "What I saw tonight was very positive. We're fighting for a playoff spot with these guys; this was like a challenge game."

On this occasion, the Nets weren't quite ready to answer the bell. For them, the most positive aspect was a 50-39 rebounding edge. That included 24 offensive rebounds, which led to 18 points. Eleven of those offensive rebounds were by forward Buck Williams, who led the Nets (37-41) with 20 points. But for the most part, he was alone.

"We didn't come out with a high level of intensity," said guard Otis Birdsong. "We struggled all night . . . I was shocked and frustrated that I didn't come out and play well. We picked the wrong night to play poorly."

Just how wrong will be determined by the remaining 10 days of the NBA schedule. For the Bullets, after playing Atlanta Friday night, only the season finale against Philadelphia, is against a team with a winning record. They also play Indiana, Cleveland and Chicago. Four of their remaining games will be at Capital Centre.

The Nets must play Boston twice, as well as travel to Atlanta. Their only potential breather is against the New York Knicks. Should the teams end the regular season tied, the Bullets take third place because of a 4-2 season series margin against the Nets.

Finishing third means facing the 76ers, who recently lost center Moses Malone, in the first round of the playoffs, rather than the Milwaukee Bucks.

But according to Williams, "It just doesn't matter. We can look at their schedule all we want but if we don't win the games we play, it just doesn't matter." Bulls 109, Pacers 108: Michael Jordan scored 26 points and John Paxson hit a six-footer with seven seconds left to lift Chicago to victory in Indianapolis.

Chicago took Jordan out with 31 seconds to play because he had already played 14 minutes per half, the limit owner Jerry Reinsdorf has imposed on Jordan as he recovers from a broken bone in his left foot that sidelined him for most of the season.

Jordan has accused Bulls management of keeping him out of games so the Bulls could lose, miss the playoffs and win a spot in the lottery for the top pick in the draft.

"I talked to Dr. [John] Hefferon [a team physician] today," said Jordan, "and he told me the X-rays showed enough improvement that I could go play a whole game . . . It's not a medical decision anymore, it's all business."

Reinsdorf denied the charge, saying the limited playing time was to protect Jordan. He will meet with Jordan after Friday or Saturday. The Bulls trail Cleveland by 1 1/2 games for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot and have six games left. Bucks 114, Cavaliers 93: In Milwaukee, Charles Davis scored 21 points and Alton Lister 20 to lead Milwaukee past Cleveland.

The Bucks, who won their fourth straight, took control at the beginning of the fourth quarter, outscoring Cleveland by 18-6 for a 99-84 lead with 6:02 left on a driving layup by Paul Pressey.

Roy Hinson scored 21 points and John Bagley 18 for the Cavaliers. Mavericks 115, Nuggets 114: A steal by Derek Harper set up a three-point play by Rolando Blackman with four seconds left that gave Dallas the home victory over Denver. The Mavericks closed to 1 1/2 games of the second-place Nuggets, who have lost five straight, in the Midwest Division.

Denver took a 114-112 lead with 27 seconds left on an eight-foot jumper by Alex English (28 points). Mark Aguirre's miss gave the Nuggets the ball with 10 seconds left, but before they could move past midcourt, Harper stole it and passed to Blackman (25 points), who hit the basket and was fouled by English. Rockets 136, Spurs 110: In San Antonio, Akeem Olajuwon scored 25 points and Allen Leavell and Lewis Lloyd had 20 each as Houston won easily.

Mike Mitchell led the Spurs with 33 points despite not playing the fourth quarter. San Antonio, with 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore and 6-10 Steve Johnson sidelined with injuries, suffered its 20th loss in 23 games. Lakers 135, Kings 105: In Inglewood, Calif., Byron Scott scored 24 points, James Worthy had 22 points and Earvin (Magic) Johnson had 16 assists to lead Los Angeles to victory. The Kings have lost 30 straight games to the Lakers at the Forum since Oct. 20, 1974.

The Lakers went on a 21-8 run to open a 58-43 lead with 3:10 left in the first half.