If you looked at the Washington Bullets bench last night you saw Tom Hammonds, Greg Foster, Pervis Ellison. You saw Coach Wes Unseld, assistant Bill Blair, trainer John Lally. You saw John Williams. You saw Charlie Butler, the equipment manager.

That's people in street clothes 5, players 3. That was the fix the Bullets found themselves in against the Detroit Pistons, who themselves are without Isiah Thomas. But Washington managed to overcome 19 percent shooting in a record-tying first half and make a game of it anyway, falling only in the last seconds, 80-75, before a sellout 18,756 at Capital Centre.

Washington already was without Darrell Walker (sprained knee ligament) and Mark Alarie (laceration below right eye), both hurt Thursday. Just before the game, the Bullets sent Ledell Eackles home with the flu. And a minute into the game, they lost Haywoode Workman for all intents and purposes with a strained right groin.

That's four players gone in one day. One-third of the team.

Eackles "was very reluctant to tell me that he couldn't go," Unseld said, "because he thought he was letting everybody down. He went out and tried to warm up. He was cramped over and they looked at him and gave him some medication and told him the best thing for him was to go home. He had a tough time straightening up."

That left Byron Irvin, who had played all of 98 minutes the entire season, in the starting lineup. A minute into the game, rookie A.J. English joined him.

English played 46 minutes, Irvin 44.

Given the circumstances, they handled themselves pretty well. English, playing point guard almost exclusively, had only one turnover. Irvin had 10 points and eight rebounds.

"Just to pop up and start after I haven't played at all the last four games, it was a little surprising," Irvin said. "I didn't really shoot the ball all that well but I thought I played pretty hard, helped us have an opportunity to win at the end."

Indeed, the Bullets had their chances after erasing almost all of a 16-point second-half deficit. They were down 78-75 after a free throw by Bernard King (game-high 24 points, 12 rebounds) with 1:54 left. And they had three chances to get tie, the last coming when English (eight points) pulled up for a three-point shot with 15 seconds left.

It missed.

"That's the kind of night it was," English said.

Joe Dumars led Detroit with 22 points. Mark Aguirre had 18 points and eight rebounds off the bench. Bill Laimbeer had 13 rebounds and two blocks. But the Pistons shot just 37 percent (33 of 89) themselves.

"We had to hold on to our lives to get out of here," Coach Chuck Daly said. "After playing well in the first half, we let them right back into the game in the third quarter."

That first half saw the Bullets tie a franchise record for fewest points, 25, set against the Knicks Dec. 22, 1985. They shot nine of 47. Absolutely nothing worked.

Yet the Bullets trailed only 38-25 at intermission, because the Pistons (33-13) without Thomas are a good bet every night not to break 90.

"The first three minutes was awful," Ellison said. "Worst basketball I've ever seen in my life."

The Bullets scored 29 points in the third quarter, getting to the foul line and getting Dennis Rodman (eight rebounds) in foul trouble. Washington went on a 15-4 run to end the quarter, with Harvey Grant's rebound basket making it 56-54.

Ellison tied it early in the fourth, but the Pistons went almost exclusively to their pick and roll with Dumars and Laimbeer. It worked four straight times.

But Ellison (15 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks) came on. His free throws with 9:40 left got the Bullets within 60-59, and a rebound basket a little later kept them within three. Later still, he dunked to make it 71-68, Detroit, with less than five minutes to play.

King hit a foul-line jumper at 3:43 to close the gap to 73-72. But Aguirre converted a three-point play to give the Pistons breathing room.

Ellison's tip-in made it a two-point game. Dumars made free throws at 2:14 for a 78-74 Pistons lead before King's free throw gave Washington its last point.