Kevin Porter returned to the starting lineup for the first time in three month tonight and the fired-up Washington Bullets became a different team.

They nearly blew a 21-point fourth quarter lead under a furious New York rally, but regrouped in time to come away with a 122-113 victory, keeping them in the thick of the battle for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Until that fourth-quarter swoon, the Bullets played as well as they have all season and Porter was the reason.

He pushed the ball upcourt quickly, he got the ball to the right people at the right time and he had complete control of the game.

He finished with 24 points and 19 assists.

Elvin Hayes scored 39 points and Kevin Grevey added 24, including three three-point shots, all in the first half when the Bullets led by as many as 25 points.

Earlier in the day, the Bullets put Bob Dandridge on the injured list and signed seven-year NBA veteran Ron Behagen. The 6-foot-9 Behagen played in Italy this season after being cut by the New York Knicks in preseason.

Because of assorted injuries, Dandridge had played in only 45 games this season.

Porter started tonight only because Jim Cleamons injured his shoulder in the Bullets' last game and couldn't play.

"K.P. is playing with a spark he didn't have at the beginning of the season," Motta said. "He really played good."

With Porter running the show, the Bullets shot a season-high 60 percent and looked virtually unbeatable in the first three quarters.

Grevey got them going with those three-point shots in the first half and the Bullets led by 25 points at one time, 61-36.

Everything was clicking.

Porter was penetrating the defense and when the New York big men picked him up, he took the ball to an open teammate, and when no one pick him up, he took the ball to the basket.

Ray Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, Geoff Huston and Earl Monroe took turns trying to control Porter in vain.

Porter scored on a fast-break Basket after a 360-degree spinning move around a surprised Monroe. He then fed Hayes with a perfect lob pass that Hayes caught and turned into a reverse two-handed slam-dunk -- all in one motion. Porter then stole the ball from Richardson and scored on a breakaway for a seemingly insurmountable 102-79 Bullet lead with 9:49 to play.

But the Knicks wouldn't quit. With Williams and Monroe leading the way, they started pressing and forcing steals and the Bullet lead started to disappear.

Monroe scored all of his 14 points in the final quarter.

The Knicks crept to within six points, 114-108, with 2:30 to play after a twisting jumper by Richardson.

Grevey answered with a pair of free throws and then after a Williams miss, fed Wes Unseld for a layup and the Bullets had a 10-point lead.

"When we got the big lead we tried to use the clock and sometimes you get too cautious when you do that," Porter said. "We showed great poise, though. We really needed this game tonight.

"Grevey got us going with those three-point shots early," Porter continued.

"That helped open up a lot of things inside."

Grevey who has made eight of his last 13 three-point attempts, said that when he hits one, he can't wait to shoot another.

"If they're falling, why not keep shooting them?," he said. "I think by me hitting those shots, it made it easier to get the ball into Elvin."

Porter said the Bullets made a subtle change in their offense which contributed to Hayes' big night.

Usually Hayes sets up on the left side of the basket, gets the ball and shoots without any picks or screens.

Tonight, the Bullets brought Hayes from the right side to the left side behind a pick and he usually was wide open.

He wasn't missing, either, drilling 16 to 21 shots.

The Bullets improved their record to 36-41, but are still on seventh place in the conference, 1 1/2 games out of sixth place and the final playoff spot.

Houston defeated Indiana, 125-110, tonight to move into a tie for forth with the Knicks. Each has a 38-40 record.

"Our chances are still slim and non," said Motta. "We need outside help and that's awfully tough to get in this league."

The Bullets have five games remaining, beginning this afternoon with a 1 o'clock affair with the Detroit Pistons at Capital Centre.

Dandridge has calcium on the knee and most likely will need surgery to have the condition corrected.

Dandridge must miss at least five games, which means he could be reactivated for the last regular-season game but the Bullets indicated tonight that they don't plan on that happening.

The 225-pound, 29-year-old Behagen, signed primarily for rebounding and defense, played five minutes tonight. He didn't score or get a rebound, but muscled the Knicks around.

"He (Behagen) knows how to play," said Bullet assistant Bernie Bickerstaff. "No one is going to take advantage of him."