The Bullets travel to New York's Madison Square Garden to face the Knicks at 8:30 tonight in a key game for third place in the NBA Eastern Conference race. The contest will be televised on WDCA-TV-20.

Washington held a 2 1/2-game lead over the Knicks going into last night's Capital Centre contest against Kansas City. The Bullets and Knicks also will play Sunday at Capital Centre.

"It's unusual this late in the season that you can determine your own destiny, but the Knicks can do just that," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "If they beat us up there, they have a chance to catch us. We aren't shoo-ins, that's for sure."

The Knicks might be without forward Spencer Haywood (knee strain) and center Bob McAdoo (bronchitis). Both missed the team's victory over Denver Tuesday night at the Garden. Their status for tonight's game will be determined after a midday examination.

The teams have split previous meetings this season, the Knicks winning in New York in October and the Bullets at Capital Centre in November.

New York has been struggled in March. The Knicks have won only three of their last 11 games and are only one game over .500 (38-37).

"We could have put them away," said Motta. "But we haven't been able to play consistenly ourselves. We should have this thing all wrapped up by now."

Of the two teams, Washington has the tougher remaining schedule. The Bullets must meet playoff contenders Cleveland, Los Angeles and Philadelphia (twice), while the Knicks have contests with New Orleans and Atlanta.

Both clubs also have to worry about Cleveland, which is making a last-minute run. The Cavaliers have won their last two and are only a game behind the Knicks. Cleveland plays at Washington Friday night.

The third-and fourth-place teams in the final conference standings host the first-round playoff series. But the No. 3 team will be in the bracket opposite conference champ Philadelphia and, if it should win in the first round, would meet San Antonio in the second round.

"You get more money for finishing third and you'd rather play San Antonio and Philadelphia," said Bullet forward Bob Dandridge. "We have enough incentive to do well, I believe."