"He's got the fire in him now. The hell and damnation that wasn't there at the first of the year is back." --Bullet Coach Dick Motta, talking about Kevin Porter.

Kevin Porter, two months ago on the verge of riding the bench out of town, has returned to play a key role in the Bullets' final drive toward a possible 12th straight playoff appearance.

Porter has started the last three games for injured Jim Cleamons. The Bullets have won all three, and Porter has averaged 17.6 points and 18 assists in the streak. Even though Cleamons will play tonight, Motta said Porter probably will start as the Bullets take on the Boston Celtics at Capital Centre at 8 o'clock.

The Bullets are still in seventh place in the Eastern Conference on a 37-41 record, trailing sixth-place New York (38-41) by a half-game. Fifth-place Houston is 38-40. Only the top six teams will make it to the playoffs.

The Knicks play Cleveland in Richfield, Ohio, tonight and the fourth-place San Antonio Spurs visit the Rockets. If the Bullets tie either Houston or New York at the end of the season, they will receive the playoff berth according to the NBA's formula for breaking ties.

"He (Porter) just didn't show that spark earlier," Motta said, explaining Porter's benching in December.

"He was having a tough time. He was playing with a makeshift lineup and we got into a hole and everybody started pressing," Motta said. "He probably tried to adjust his game to us much more than we realized and it hurt him. He's got the fire back in him now."

At one point early in the season, Porter was disappointed in his own play. He went to Motta and told the coach to start Larry Wright in his place.

Now, Porter is playing with confidence. "I stopped trying to do things I wasn't comfortable doing," he said, "like bringing the ball up slower and trying to play pattern basketball all of the time. That isn't my style, so I just decided to go out and be myself."

The new-look Porter began to emerge in February in a game at Kansas City. He had been used sparingly up to that point since losing the starting job to Cleamons in December, but that night Porter scored 15 points and had three assists in 17 minutes.

Four games later, he scored 10 points and had eight assists in one quarter against the Lakers. His playing time began to increase.

During the last month, he has averaged about 20 minutes a game, mostly in the second and fourth quarters.

Before the Bullets traded him away in 1975, Porter often was hot-headed and his temper frequently got him into foul trouble. When he returned this year, he had toned down the fiery side of his game and it hurt his play. Now the hot stuff is back.

In recent weeks, he has stood toe-to-toe with Spencer Haywood, Maurice Lucas and James Edwards -- all about a foot taller -- and not backed down an inch.

Before Thursday's victory over Philadelphia, the Bullets were the poorest-shooting team in the NBA, converting only 45.7 percent of their shot and averaging 107 points a game.

With Porter running the show the last three games, they have shot 50 percent, 59.5 percent and 52.9 percent, averaging 120 points a game.

Until yesterday, Motta had been lukewarm in his praise for Porter this week.

Motta still is not convinced that Porter can be as effective when the Bullets aren't running and have to set up to play a half-court game for 48 minutes. That's where Cleamons is so valuable.

But the coach said yesterday this is "too crucial of a time to be worrying about that kind of stuff."

Porter claims to hold no grudges against Motta for benching him early in the season and for his lack of playing time.

"The coach has to do what he thinks is right," Porter said. "I never let what happened in the past get me down, though I feel confident in my ability and in the team and I think that's the attitude a team's playmaker has to have. I think that Confidence is starting to rub off on other people, now, too."

The key to Porter's game -- and his high number of assists -- is his ability to penetrate.

"What Kevin does is keep the other team's big men's backs to our big men," said center Wes Unseld. "Kevin is always a threat to take the ball all the way in, every time he gets it, so the other team's big men have to watch him. And if they're watching him, they can't be watching their men like they should.

"It's tough to guard your man when you have to play that way. That's the position we're in a lot on defense, so I know what a disadvantage that puts you at."

The last three games, Elvin Hayes has scored 88 points with nine baskets off lob passes from Porter. Those plays work because Hayes' defender glances away to watch Porter.

Forward Greg Ballard, who strained his back Sunday, is expected to play, but said yesterday his back is still sore. He injured it taking an ordinary jump shot. If Ballard can't play, Motta said he would use newly acquired Ron Behagen at his spot and use guard Kevin Grevey up front as well . . . As of late yesterday afternoon, only 2,000 tickets remained for tonight's game.