DENVER, FEB. 22 -- One never knows what to expect from the Denver Nuggets. Using the most free-lance, helter-skelter offense in the NBA, they give opponents fits by varying their lineups, at times playing 6-foot-7 guard Bill Hanzlik at center.

The myriad looks are especially effective at McNichols Arena, where the mile of altitude often leaves visitors gasping while the home team frolics at a league-leading 116 points per game. For three quarters tonight, the Washington Bullets coped well with the thin air and the fast break.

Then came the fourth quarter, and -- gasp -- a mere 15 points for the Bullets, and a 100-87 defeat for the travelers.

The Bullets (19-31) trailed, 74-72, entering the final period but buried themselves by missing nine of their first 10 shots in the next 9 1/2 minutes. They scored three points in that span.

Dan Schayes led Denver (30-20) with 21 points, and all-star guard Lafayette Lever had 18 with 15 rebounds. Moses Malone and guard Frank Johnson had 17 points each, and Malone 13 rebounds, for the Bullets, who head directly into the teeth of the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night in the fifth of eight games on this western swing.

According to Bullets Coach Wes Unseld, that might be easier than trying to maintain a semblance of stamina here.

"We just ran out of steam. At the end of the third quarter we couldn't get the ball above our knees four straight times," he said. "It's tough playing here. Everybody tries to deny it, but it takes a special kind of digging down deep. Shots that -- even as bad as we shoot sometimes -- we normally make, they wouldn't fall."

By the time the Nuggets took control, with a 10-0 rush over a 5:30 span to extend an 86-78 lead, Washington's offense was reduced to a series of jump shots from Charles Jones and hook shots by Manute Bol.

The improbable setup only played further into the Nuggets' hands, leading several breakaway layups that wrapped it up.

"They were definitely more aggressive when they were running the ball," said Nuggets guard Michael Adams. The former Bullet contributed 11 points to the Denver cause, including seven in the first quarter when he connected on a pair of three-point field goals. "They definitely have problems when they stand around, because they're not a real good passing team and everybody seems like they want to shoot the ball."

Jay Vincent, who also came here in the preseason trade that sent Mark Alarie and Darrell Walker to Washington, sat out with a groin pull. The veteran forward's 17 points per game weren't needed, although that didn't seem to be the case early on.

The Bullets hit 54 percent of their shots in the first half and controlled play by outmaneuvering Doug Moe's team. In a 124-109 victory at Capital Centre Jan. 1, the Nuggets had great success using a smallish lineup with Hanzlik in the pivot whenever 7-6 Bol entered.

Tonight, when Moe tried to repeat the ploy, Unseld went right back to Moses Malone. That left Denver undersized in the low post, and Washington capitalized, outrebounding the Nuggets 27-24 and taking a 50-45 halftime lead. At the time, the Bullets had shot 12 free throws to just two for Denver, but made only six.

The missing points certainly would have been welcome in the late going. Schayes scored 11 in the third period to put the Nuggets back in it. Then, in the fourth quarter they steadily moved ahead as the Bullets were collectively unable to catch a second wind.

"It's like having real bad chest pains," said forward John Williams. "There's nothing you can do to prepare for it. You run down court two or three times and then the next time it's like a burning inside. It happened to me several times."

As they became less and less patient -- or perhaps just unable -- to work the ball inside because of fatigue, the Bullets fell prey.

"They'd start releasing while we went to crash the offensive boards," said Williams. "And once they start to get out there's nothing you can do to catch up with them."