LANDOVER -- The oft-maligned New Jersey Nets are starting to talk like a playoff team. And act like one, too.
The Nets ran their winning streak to four yesterday, routing the Washington Bullets, 99-81, before 16,620 at USAir Arena.
New Jersey, 22-29 and fighting for one of the last Eastern Conference playoff spots, withstood a third-quarter rally by Washington that reduced a 16-point lead to 62-61, then took complete control in the fourth quarter behind 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley (27 points, nine rebounds) and point guard Chris Childs (22 points, seven assists).
New Jersey moved within a game of the road-weary Bullets (23-28), who have lost seven of their past eight.
In recent years, the Nets have been in constant chaos, triggered by recalcitrant power forward Derrick Coleman and oft-injured playmaker Kenny Anderson. Both were traded this season, and the Nets seem to be getting their act together.
"We've got rid of the distractions," said veteran forward Armon Gilliam, the Nets' leading scorer and rebounder. "Now there's no more infighting and all that garbage. Now our only focus is basketball and winning.
"This is the best team defense we've played since I've been here," said Gilliam, acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in 1993.
New Jersey started to gain confidence in playing close games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns on a West Coast swing and followed up with two victories over the Indiana Pacers and one against the New York Knicks.
Nets coach Butch Beard had to be particularly pleased with Bradley, the former 76er who has shown constant improvement in recent weeks after a slow start with his new team.
Yesterday, showing an assortment of soft jump shots and baseline slams and proving far too agile for 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan, Bradley scored 17 of his 27 points in the second half after New Jersey ended the first half leading 45-42.
"I know I started the game 0-for-7, but I was getting good shots and figured they would start falling," said Bradley. "I just kept attacking Muresan. That's the only way to play against him. Tonight is the best I've played as a Net, but the best is yet to come."
The Nets were accused of making a horrible trade in swapping Coleman for the stick-like Bradley, but now it's being reassessed.
"He's getting better every game," said Beard. "He's done more than anyone could have expected. He's thinking more and more like a center, and he has really improved his defense."
It was the overall Nets defense that frustrated the Bullets in the third quarter when New Jersey moved to a 60-46 lead.
Washington then made its final run, using the outside shooting of Calbert Cheaney (27 points) and Juwan Howard to close to 62-61.
But Bradley and reserve point guard Vern Fleming (11 points, 11 assists) each contributed four points to give the Nets a 70-64 cushion at the close of the quarter. A layup and a three-pointer by Childs raised the margin to 81-68, and the Bullets never threatened again.
Point guard Brent Price had a disastrous afternoon, turning the ball over eight times in 18 minutes and scoring only two points.
Howard said the hectic schedule has taken its toll.
"We didn't even get 24 hours to rest after playing in Minnesota Sunday afternoon," he said. "We played like a tired team."