LANDOVER -- As Dick Vitale might say, "The Washington Bullets just aren't ready for prime time."
Last night, they put on a dazzling display of basketball for 15 minutes, running off 17 straight points to grab a 40-23 lead. But that was hardly enough to finish off a title contender such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who regrouped and rolled to their 10th straight victory, 99-92, before a Capital Centre crowd of 7,441.
After blowing their big lead, the Bullets (12-21) fought back from a 10-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to close to 89-88 with four minutes remaining.
Washington had a chance to regain the lead when point guard Michael Adams led a three-on-one fastbreak. But Adams got caught in the air, and his errant pass was swiped by Mark Price, who drove the length of the court for a layup.
Center Brad Daugherty (21 points, 13 rebounds) followed with a short hook for a 93-88 cushion with three minutes remaining. The Bullets drew no closer than four the rest of the way, as their home mark dropped to 4-11.
In keeping the pressure on the Central Division-leading Chicago Bulls by winning 19 of the past 23 games, Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens has been careful not to overwork Price, his floor leader, who missed almost all of last season after knee surgery.
But last night, with the game on the line, Price played 36 minutes, his longest stretch of the season, and responded with 25 points, eight assists and the critical steal off Adams.
"We're just a different team when he's out there playing," said Wilkens. During the past three-plus seasons, the Cavaliers are 70-44 with Price and 28-54 without him.
Price settled down the Cavaliers and revived their running game after the Bullets had jumped to a 40-23 lead.
"He's just a real smart player who usually keeps his man occupied so that a team can't double-team us effectively," Wilkens said. "That's one less guy you have to worry about on traps, and, in the meantime, Mark is penetrating, dishing it off to the open man or making his own shot."
It sounds simple, but Price appeared fatigued after his lengthy outing.
"My knee feels good, but I'm still getting my stamina and timing back," he said. "It's hard to be out for almost a year and be back to where you were before the injury. Right now, I'm probably at 80 percent."
When Price wasn't tormenting the Bullets, Daugherty or forward Larry Nance (20 points, 15 rebounds) was hurting them inside with scoring and strong board work. Plus Craig Ehlo (15 points) kept sneaking down the lane for layups, including his drive with 1:15 left that gave the Cavaliers a six-point cushion.
And yet, the Bullets, who have lost their past three to three of the NBA's superior teams -- the New York Knicks, Chicago and Cleveland -- managed to hang close, thanks to strong efforts by Harvey Grant (25 points) and Pervis Ellison (24 points, 12 rebounds).
But this was offset by another tough shooting night for Adams, who made four of 21 field-goal attempts in scoring 13 points -- nine below his season average.
Asked whether he still was bothered by the tape protecting a swollen middle finger on his non-shooting hand, Adams said: "No, that's just an excuse. I needed to help this team by scoring when we stopped moving the ball. We got the big lead by running, then guys tried to go one-on-one, and we wound up taking a lot of tough shots."
Bullets coach Wes Unseld, still minus forwards Bernard King, Tom Hammonds and Mark Alarie, said he has not grown frustrated during the latest losing streak.
"We played our butts off tonight and gave ourselves a chance to win it in the last minutes," he said. "But Cleveland made the big plays down the stretch, and we didn't and that's why they're up there near the top."
Center Ralph Sampson, who was waived by the Bullets on Tuesday, went unclaimed by other NBA teams and yesterday joined Malaga in the Spanish Basketball League for the remainder of their season. "Ralph wants to work himself back in shape and take another crack at the NBA next season," said his agent, Mike Higgins of ProServ.