LANDOVER -- Last week, Washington Bullets president Susan O'Malley, a self-confessed eternal optimist, mailed playoff vouchers to season-ticket holders.
But the letter carrier making deliveries to the Capital Centre should not be overburdened with requests. The Bullets appear a much safer bet to obtain a high 1992 lottery selection after losing consecutive home games in less than 50 hours to the NBA's two worst road teams.
The Sacramento Kings, who had managed to win three of 28 previous road tests and had dropped their past eight, took a cue from the Denver Nuggets in trimming the Bullets, 124-117, before a matinee crowd of 8,633 yesterday.
This time, at least, the Bullets had a possible excuse. They played without center Pervis Ellison, their leading scorer and rebounder, who was sent home with the flu.
Rookie Larry Stewart, a 6-foot-8 forward, started in Ellison's place and did a solid job with 15 points and 11 rebounds. But without Ellison's shot-blocking in the middle, the Kings penetrated the Bullets' defense at will, shooting 56 percent from the field in tying their season high of 124 points.
There were also individual season highs set by reserve guard Dennis Hopson (10-for-15) with 24 points and center Duane Causwell (7-for-8) with 19 points and four assists.
The Kings, who have won five straight from Washington, almost appeared to be teasing the Bullets in the final quarter when the home team staged several aborted rallies.
Trailing 100-89 with just under 11 minutes left, the Bullets twice trimmed the deficit to four and came as close as three (110-107) when rookie guard LaBradford Smith hit a 22-foot jump shot with 4:35 remaining.
But Spud Webb (21 points, 10 assists) and Mitch Richmond (20 points) answered with baskets to stretch the lead back to seven. Stewart's three-point play made it 114-110, but Causwell and Anthony Bonner then combined for a 6-0 Kings run to put it out of reach.
The Bullets are tied with Sacramento and the Charlotte Hornets for the fourth-worst record in the NBA. Only the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves have fewer victories. If the season were to end today, Sacramento would get a lower lottery pick because it swept the two-game series with Washington.
Bullets coach Wes Unseld tried just about every possible combination yesterday, but his undersized team was overpowered inside by Causwell and Bonner, who grabbed 10 rebounds each. Stewart and Harvey Grant (25 points, 15 rebounds) offered the only resistance on the boards.
"I tried to rebound as best I could," said Grant, still nursing a bruised right shin. "But without Ellison to back us up, their guards believed they could penetrate any time they wanted, and they did."
Unseld was more forgiving.
"I'm not sure we didn't play well for what we had on the floor today," he said. "Without Pervis, we have to catch teams struggling, not being very active or be downright lucky ourselves."
Perhaps the only silver lining was the play of Smith, the No. 1 draft pick from Louisville, who played 27 minutes off the bench and contributed career highs of 17 points and four steals.
Smith, a 6-foot-5 guard, has struggled all season to make a positive impression after missing training camp and the first 25 games with a badly sprained ankle.
"It's hard playing in this league when you're not 100 percent," he said. "I've been working on my shooting before and after practice with [assistant coach] Bill Blair.
"I also watched tapes of my past games, and I could tell I was over-anxious and rushing shots. Today, I just relaxed, and every time I shot the ball, it felt good."
The Bullets get a two-day break before playing the defending champion Bulls in Chicago on Wednesday night.