AUBURN HILLS, MICH., NOV. 23 -- It was the type of game professional sportsmen hate to own up to, but it happens when you match a veteran, championship team with a stumbling young squad that has to resort to gimmickry just to stay competitive.

"They were just playing with us out there," Washington Bullets guard Darrell Walker said of the Detroit Pistons, who dispatched the Bullets for the 12th straight time with numbing ease, 97-88, tonight before a sellout crowd at The Palace.

Washington (2-8), which lost its fifth straight, had nothing that could stop Detroit (8-2) from winning its fifth straight. The Bullets would keep things interesting for a while with a little spurt, but any time the Pistons needed a basket, they got one. Any time they had to have a rebound, they grabbed one.

As usual, the Pistons spread the wealth. Mark Aguirre scored 20 points for Detroit, which led for the last 46 minutes of play. Joe Dumars had 19 points and Isiah Thomas added 18. And Detroit held Washington to 40 percent shooting from the field.

The only encouraging note for the Bullets was the play of Tom Hammonds, who got his first extended time of the season and responded with a career-high 18 points. Dennis Rodman harassed Bernard King all night long, and King was held to 11 points, 20 below his season average. Pervis Ellison also had 11 points for Washington and Charles Jones added a season-high 10.

Hammonds scored seven more tonight than he had in his first seven appearances combined. He came off the bench instead of Mark Alarie, who didn't see time until the fourth quarter and then played all 12 minutes of the period.

"You've got to be ready when you get your chance," Hammonds said. "Everybody's always trying to count you out. It's not like that in my case. I know I have the confidence to play in this league. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."

The Bullets had 40 field goals -- actually, that's above normal for them these days. They shot only four free throws the first three quarters and finished with 13, just missing the all-time team low for foul shots.

"Toying" might have been the operative word for the Pistons.

"I know that kind of makes {Coach} Wes {Unseld} a little upset," Walker said. "Maybe they're just that good. We would make our run and get back in it and they would just tighten up and execute and do some things, get some offensive rebounds and loose balls. Next thing you know they're back up by 12 or 13."

Washington resorted to the half-court trap that had been successful against Sacramento. But these were not the Kings. It's not that Detroit shredded the trap -- Washington had its successes -- but the Pistons did just enough to keep the Bullets from ever getting even. With King muzzled, all the Pistons had to do was wait for the inevitable scoring drought.

"We got it to 10 and we just couldn't build on it," Thomas said. "We just could never push it past 10 and they could never get it any closer. {But} you don't try to experiment in a game like that. You want to go out and get the win as quick as possible."

Said Aguirre: "We had an emotional win {an overtime victory Wednesday}, and coming off Thanksgiving, it's hard to get right back in it."

Detroit led 54-44 at the half and quickly pushed its lead to 17. But the Pistons then went scoreless for nearly six minutes while Washington scored 11 straight. King had five and the Bullets got within 65-59 with 4:41 left in the quarter on a Harvey Grant jumper.

The Pistons held the Bullets to four points the rest of the period, and scored five in the last minute to lead 74-63 after three.

From there, the Bullets got no closer than nine, as they traded baskets with the Pistons. Unseld kept King on the bench most of the fourth, going with Hammonds, Pervis Ellison and Alarie up front.

"We didn't want them to get into their tempo," Unseld said of the traps. "They're very good at controlling the way they want to play. . . . They like to get to their halfcourt offense. I don't think they've changed a play in four years. We didn't want them to get into a halfcourt situation where they were just pounding it in there."