You will pardon Bill Fitch, the NBA's answer to Henny Youngman, for the dearth of fresh material in his routine these days.

There has been nothing very funny about the Cleveland cavaliers' season, and the prospect of going into the playoffs with three injured starters is hardly a laughing matter.

When the Washington Bullets play the Cavaliers here Tuesday night (8 p.m., WTOP-TV-9), they will be up against a team that has ben decimated by injuries all season.

Veteran center Nate Thurmond and slick guard Jim Cleamons, both heroes in the Cavaliers' playoff victory over the Bullets last year, will not dress for the game. And forward Campy Russell probably won't play much.

Thurmond, 35, tore cartilage in his knee Feb. 8, underwent surgery, and is now trying to make a comeback for the opening round of the playoffs. "It's very remote," said Fitch. "But I'm amazed he's come this far. We thought his career was over, but nobody's worked any harder to come back than Nate."

Later this week, Thurmond will participate in his first practice since the injury, although Fitch will not ask him to play any of Cleveland's remaining regular-season games. "But if he can make it for the playoffs, it's got to help," said the coach.

Cleamons has been bothered by a groin injury and has played in only three of Cleveland's last 20 games. And Russell, the dead-eye, no-conscience shooter, has made only token appearances in the last three games. Before that, he missed 12 of 13 with a badly sprained ankle.

"We've had much more than our share of injuries," said Fitch, "but I'm very pleased and proud of this team. We made the playoffs because the rest of the guys just worked their butts off. It wasn't any one guy who carried us. Every night it seemed like somebody else was helping us get by."

The Cavaliers most likely will open with Bingo Smith and Jim Brewer at the forwards, Jim Chones at center and Austin Carr and Foots Walker at the guards.

Carr has been a major factor for the Cavaliers this year. The former Mackin star has averaged 16 points a game and for the first time in his career he has played in every game of a season.

"Because of the injuries, we've had to make quite changes," said Fitch. "We're still running basically the same offense. I'd call it GMA. It stands for 'general milling around,' but there have been a lot of adjustments. I never knew who could play from one day to another." Still, the Cavaliers clinched their second straight playoff berth Sunday with a 113-107 victory over Kansas City, their third straight victory at home. That ended a brutal stretch of 12 games in 15 days, and Cleveland won eight of them.

"We've been under the gun so long, right now I just like to see these guys relax and get their second wind for the playoffs," Fitch said. "We have to win all our games to improve our position in the playoffs, but I'm more concerned now with keeping people healthy and priming them to peak when it counts."

The Bullets, of course, still have quite a bit at stake. They trail Houston by 2 1/2 games for the Central Division lead and the first-round bye and subsequent home-court advantages that go with a first-place finish.

The Rockets' magic number to clinch at least to tie is one game meaning that any Rocket victory or Bullet loss would end the race. If the teams tie with the same regular-season record, Houston would be the champion because it won the season series between the two teams, three games to one.

The Bullets have games remaining at home against Chicago Wednesday, at Philadelphis Saturday and at home against the 76ers Sunday in the season finale.

Houston plays at Boston Wednesday, at Chicago Friday and finishes at home against Denver Saturday night.