AUBURN HILLS, MICH., JAN. 28 -- Not much separated the Washington Bullets and the Detroit Pistons tonight. They slogged through four quarters of defensive basketball -- Detroit's game -- and the Pistons came out on top, 87-81, in front of the usual sellout at The Palace.

The Bullets (18-24) lost their third straight, although they were within 83-81 after Bernard King's foul shots with 34 seconds left. But a foul on Haywoode Workman with 18 seconds to go changed strategy. The Pistons didn't have to shoot -- less than 24 seconds were left -- and they didn't. And John Long, the veteran guard signed last week, made four free throws in the last 16 seconds to put the two-time defending champions back atop the Central Division.

King had 30 points in one of his best performances against Dennis Rodman. But Harvey Grant shot five of 17 for 10 points. No other Bullet was in double figures, and the team blew eight of nine fast-break opportunities in the first half, by the count on its bench.

"They played their game, slow tempo," Grant said. "That's something we're not used to. You saw that in the Dallas game {Saturday}. And they {the Pistons} are probably one of the best teams at it."

Joe Dumars, playing point guard for at least two months while Isiah Thomas recovers from wrist surgery, had 27 points to lead Detroit (31-13). Rodman added 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Long finished with 10 points.

"I really don't feel like I'm tired at all," said Long, who replaced Thomas and now is in his third go-round with the Pistons. "I've been playing a long time, and once you've been playing a long time you know what it takes to win and you know what you have to do."

Neither team scored more than 27 points in a quarter. Washington was held to its lowest point total of the season, shooting 41.7 percent. The Pistons weren't much better at 42.1 percent. But they don't mind walking the ball upcourt. They fairly revel in it.

"They play the same way with or without" Thomas, said Washington Coach Wes Unseld. "It's tough because of our style of play and limited offensive people. But some teams, I think, don't have much problem with it."

After a particularily ghoulish first half, with the Pistons leading by 38-37, the Bullets came out with five straight points and later six in a row to take a 50-46 lead midway through the third quarter. But Detroit scored seven of the last nine points of the period to tie at 60. The Pistons did it with an unusual lineup, with little-used center William Bedford, Rodman and John Salley scoring all the points.

"We were really struggling all night," Detroit Coach Chuck Daly said, "until we got that little run toward the end of the third quarter, got it tied. We were fortunate to win."

The Pistons got their working margin with a 13-4 run to start the fourth. Rodman did almost all of the damage, scoring four straight baskets. Only one of them came on an offensive rebound basket, and none came against King, who was on the bench at the time.

Still, Detroit makes a habit of running plays for Rodman against the Bullets.

"They always go at B," guard Darrell Walker (9 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists) said. "You never see isolation plays for {Rodman} against anyone else. When you get that from him, it's just a bonus."

After trailing by eight, Washington got within 79-75 on King's jumper with four minutes to go. Another basket brought the Bullets within two. But Long hit a hook shot with two minutes left.

Walker made a jumper from the right corner, but Dumars did him one better from far in the left corner with 52 seconds left, keeping the Pistons up four. King converted his free throws, and the Bullets were a defensive stop away from a chance to tie.

Long had the ball way out on the right wing. The Pistons wanted to bring Dumars down the lane but Washington pressured Long. There were less than 10 seconds on the shot clock. But official Don Vaden whistled Workman for holding and, with the shot clock now off, Detroit no longer had to shoot.

"I wouldn't let {Long} cut to the basket," Workman said. "He just grabbed me and pulled me toward him. I knew the clock was going down and he was going to the ball. I was telling Darrell he was coming. But by that time he grabbed me and tried to cut the other way."

"It kind of bailed us out," Dumars acknowledged. "I kind of grabbed him and pulled him, and he kind of grabbed at me, and the ref saw the second foul."

Now the Bullets had to foul. They did, and Long hit two free throws. King missed a three-pointer -- Washington was looking for a foul on Rodman -- and the Bullets were done.