LANDOVER -- Dominique Wilkins all but wrote the final chapter to a spectacular comeback from two injuries this season, scoring 30 points last night to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 119-98 victory over the Washington Bullets and a guaranteed NBA playoff spot.
"I'm playing the best ball I've ever played in my career," said Wilkins, 33, who overcame a ruptured Achilles' tendon that sidelined him the last three months of the 1991-92 season and a hand fracture that kept him out of 11 games in January.
"I was told not to shoot the ball for four weeks, but I cheated on the doctors," said Wilkins, who has averaged more than 30 points since the All-Star Game to spark the Hawks' playoff run. "I feel like I've run an obstacle course, but this [making the playoffs] makes all the hard work worth it."
Atlanta's victory, combined with Orlando's blowout by the Celtics in Boston last night, strengthened the Hawks' hold on sixth place in the Eastern Conference with only two regular-season games remaining.
"Before tonight, I was looking at six, eight, or being out of the playoffs," said Hawks coach Bob Weiss. "Now, unbelievably, we've got a chance to overtake New Jersey for fifth.
"Nique has been great this season, and overcoming first the heel and then the hand injury makes him even more amazing," Weiss added. "His plays corresponds with us playing well, but down the stretch, our reserves have made the difference."
Conversely, the Bullets barely had enough reserves to reach the required eight-man minimum last night after forward Harvey Grant (sore foot) joined fellow starters Pervis Ellison (knee) and Michael Adams (hand) on the bench.
It all added up to a fourth straight loss as Washington (22-58) accomplished the dubious distinction of having the league's third-worst record behind Minnesota and Dallas.
This means the Bullets are assured of no worse than the sixth pick in the June draft and have an excellent mathematical chance of landing one of the top three lottery picks.
For at least 24 minutes, the Bullets performed like a team with serious playoff aspirations. With emergency center Mark Acres scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds, they trailed 58-57 at halftime.
But talent, size and manpower was all on the Hawks' side in the second half when the fatigued Bullets managed only 41 points.
Led by the three-point shooting of Wilkins, the acrobatic drives of Stacey Augmon, plus the inside muscle of Kevin Willis, Atlanta opened a 78-67 lead in the first five minutes of the third quarter. The short-handed Bullets would come no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
"Even if we had the three guys in uniform, we'd have a tough time winning," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld.