Two-thirds of the way through the National Basketball Association season, the defending-champion Boston Celtics are still struggling to be a .500 team.

Dave Cowens, perhaps the Celtics' most important player, has been in and out of the lineup after returning to the game from a brief retirement.He first suffered a sprained ankle and then a bad back.

Cowens is expected to be with the team tonight against the Washington Bullets at Capital Centre at 8:05.

After the Capital Centre stop, the Celtics will be out west for the rest of the month.

The day Cowens ended his retirement was also the day guard Charlie Scott broke his arm and was lost for the season. Kevin Stacom didn't work out well in Scott's place and the Celtics couldn't make the trade they wanted for help in the backcourt, so the call went out to 36-year-old John Havlicek. As usual, he answered it.

Havlicek opened the season as a starting forward and was then made the sixth man, playing at both guard and forward. Finally, he was positioned exclusively at guard.

Although he sometimes has trouble keeping up with the superquick guards, Havlicek says he likes the position.

"You don't have to run from baseline to baseline when you play guard," he said. "That helps me."

Havlicek is now playing 40 minutes a game out of necessity and is getting used to it. "I have to have a few things wrapped and a couple of things drained now and then, but I'm doing O.K.," he said.

The sixth-man role has been taken over by Sidney Wicks, who, as a starter wasn't producing the way Celtics had hoped. In his new role, he has played well.

"He is about the only one who can come in and make something happen," Havlicek said.

After the Golden State Warriors routed the Bullets a week ago in Oakland, Bullet coach Dick Motta said that was the best any team had played against his team this season.

Clifford Ray, the Warrior center who has a 50 per cent chance of shooting an air ball from anywhere on the floor but makes up for it with his rebounding, defense and picks, said, "You've got your fans, ego and jobs on the line.

"If a team is losing, it sometimes gets frustrated and a good team will turn that frustration into hard work and improve on its play. I'd like to think that's what we did. We've started working together again."

Mack Calvin, one of the league's quickest guards who was, surprisingly, put on waivers by the San Antonto Spurs, is expected to be picked up by the Denver Nuggets.