LANDOVER -- On paper, the New Jersey Nets vs. the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre last night figured to be a classic mismatch.
The lottery-bound Bullets, with the worst record in the East, were playing the playoff-bound Nets, who owned the fourth-best record and had won eight of their past nine games.
To increase the odds, Bullets rookie forward Tom Gugliotta missed his first game as a pro, bedded down with the flu.
Reserve guard Rex Chapman was a late scratch, also with the flu. Center Pervis Ellison already was sidelined with a knee injury, leaving Wes Unseld with a bunch of undersized forwards to battle one of the NBA's biggest front lines, featuring 6-foot-10 Derrick Coleman and 6-11 Chris Dudley, with 7-1 Sam Bowie and beefy 6-10 Rick Mahorn in reserve.
"We just didn't want to get embarrassed," said Bullets co-captain Harvey Grant.
Instead, it was the Nets who were humiliated as the gritty Bullets fought off a late rally to win, 97-92, before a crowd of 6,903.
New Jersey (39-27) made a desperate bid to overtake Washington in the closing minutes, trimming a 91-85 deficit to 93-92 on Rumeal Robinson's jump shot with 50 seconds left.
But the Bullets made all the clutch plays. First, Grant made a baseline jump shot with 31 seconds remaining.
Nets forward Chris Morris then tried to tie it with a three-point shot that barely grazed the front rim. He released it with 16 seconds left on the shot clock. Coleman tried to muscle his way for the rebound, but was boxed out by Larry Stewart.
"If I had let Derrick get that rebound, Coach [Wes Unseld] would have killed me," said a laughing Stewart, who had 22 points and seven rebounds.
Nets coach Chuck Daly had a different perspective.
"That was just a terrible shot by Chris," he said. "We wanted to go down low to Coleman [16 points, 15 rebounds] or free up Rafael Addison. We were looking for a basket and a foul."
The Nets got neither. And LaBradford Smith (19 points) put it out of reach with a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left.
New Jersey played the last 17 minutes without leading scorer and top three-point shooter Drazen Petrovic, who sprained his left knee in a third-quarter collision with Smith.
But Daly would not use this as an excuse to shortchange the Bullets' effort.
"They played exceptional defense," said Daly. "They had a good game plan -- doubling down on the post -- and stuck with it."
Added Bowie: "That was the best trapping defense I've seen against us all year, especially against our big men. A couple of times I had the ball, I couldn't even find a passing lane. We can't use not having Petro as an excuse. Hey, how many guys were they missing?"
In the first half, the Nets used their bulk and size advantage for a 26-16 rebounding edge. But thanks mainly to Charles Jones (11 rebounds), the Bullets more than held their own in the second half and managed to beat the bigger Nets in transition.
Stewart scored 10 of his points in the third quarter on his twisting moves to the hoop.
"With Larry, he's more effective going inside against bigger guys," said Unseld. "They can't move quick enough laterally to stop him."
Michael Adams (22 points, 10 assists), who had skipped the morning shoot-around because of flu symptoms, joined Stewart, Smith and Grant in maintaining offensive pressure on the Nets.
"I was feeling light-headed, but after counting heads, I knew I had to play tonight," said the 5-10 playmaker. "As the game progressed, I started feeling better."
And his Bullets teammates all felt better about themselves after the final buzzer.