LANDOVER -- With three starters out and his lead over the Miami Heat in the battle for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot reduced to one game, New Jersey Nets coach Bill Fitch had reason for concern before last night's game with the Washington Bullets.
But Fitch received a big boost from reserves Kenny Anderson and Sam Bowie, clutch shooting by Drazen Petrovic and strong offensive rebounding by Chris Dudley to wear down the Bullets, 109-103, before 5,933 -- the smallest Capital Centre crowd of the season.
The victory boosted the Nets record to 36-40 with six games left, and lifted them into a tie with the Atlanta Hawks. Both teams now lead the idle Heat by 1 1/2 games.
"We had nine guys dressed, and all nine guys contributed," said Fitch, even applauding third-string center Dave Feitl, who had 4 points and 2 rebounds in 5 minutes. "That's what has to happen when you're short-handed and trying to win a big game on the road."
Fitch was minus point guard Mookie Blaylock (knee), power forward Derrick Coleman (leg boil) and small forward Chris Morris (flu). But the Nets, trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1986, showed the depth of their bench, particularly in the fourth quarter after spotting the Bullets a 92-84 lead.
Tate George, who started in place of Blaylock, joined the lightly-played Anderson in leading a 10-0 Nets run to forge ahead, 94-92.
The lead then changed hands three times, with Washington moving in front, 101-98, with just over 4 minutes remaining. Petrovic, who finished with 25, reclaimed the lead by hitting two straight jumpers.
Even when the Nets missed, Rafael Addison, Dudley or Bowie hustled inside to grab a critical offensive rebound, denying the Bullets the ball and running more than a minute off the clock.
The Bullets, playing their sixth straight game without center Pervis Ellison (groin), were simply out-muscled on the boards by the taller Nets.
Dudley's tip-in made it 105-101 with 98 seconds left. Ledell Eackles, returning after a one-game suspension and fine for missing the team plane and a practice in Miami, made a corner jumper to pull the Bullets within two points with 48 seconds left.
But Washington would not score again. Down 106-103, the Bullets called time out with 26 seconds left, but failed to get a shot off as Harvey Grant fumbled away Michael Adams' pass.
"We're not playing smart, and it's frustrating," said Grant, who grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds to go with his team-high 22 points. "We had the Nets on the ropes tonight. We're supposed to beat a team missing three starters. Sure, we missed Pervis, but we're always playing short-handed."
The Nets, of course, took an opposite view.
"We couldn't take the Bullets lightly, especially with three of our key guys out and how hard it is for us to win here in the past," said Dudley, who along with the more offensive-minded Bowie, form what Fitch calls his "two-headed center."
"With Sam and myself in the game in the fourth quarter, we had a big size advantage and we were able to wear them down," Dudley said.
The pair also combined for eight blocked shots -- five by Dudley, including a basket- saving swat of David Wingate's breakaway layup.
"With Chris and I in the game, we don't try to play 'deny' defense," said Bowie. "The Bullets have to shoot over us, and we challenged them in the last quarter."
The most surprising lift came from Anderson, the highly-priced and publicized lottery pick from Georgia Tech who has been playing behind both Blaylock and George. Anderson, who played the entire fourth quarter, contributed 15 points, 7 assists and a pair of steals.
NOTES: Ellison tested his pulled groin before the game and felt "a slight twinge." He has missed six straight games, but hopes to return against Miami tomorrow night. . . . Bullets coach Wes Unseld is uncertain how he will deal with guard Rex Chapman, who is tentatively scheduled to make his Bullets debut in New York on Tuesday. Unseld said that Chapman, sidelined since January with a bruised left heel, has not had a chance to practice with the team. The Bullets want to see Chapman in a game before pursuing a surgical remedy. . . . The Nets have three games left on the road -- against Atlanta, Miami and Orlando -- and three at home -- against Cleveland, Indiana and Orlando.