Pete Maravich made a fadeaway 25-foot shot with 51 seconds to play last night and the three-pointer for Boston beat the Bullets, 96-95, before a Capital Centre capacity crowd of 19,035.

Midseason acquisition Maravich came in as a Celtic substitute and dealt a heavy blow to Washington's playoff chances by scoring 17 fourth-quarter points. Most of them came on rainbow jump shots after he popped out from behind double screens.

The Bullets had a number of chances to win after Maravich's three-point shot. But Elvin Hayes missed a jump short with 33 seconds left and Greg Ballard failed on a 10-footer from the right side off an inbounds play, with one second remaining.

A three-game Bullet winning streak ended and their playoff hopes dwindled.

The New York Knicks beat Cleveland last night and moved 1 1/2 games ahead of the Bullets with only two to play for New York and three for Washington.

Houston lost to San Antonio, so the Rockets dropped to sixth place, remaining one game ahead of the seventh-place Bullets.

"This was a very important game for us," said Kevin Grevey of the Bullets. "It could be our season."

"There's no question about it now," said Ballard, who led the Bullets with 28 points. "We have to win the next three games."

It was a wild and hectic finish to a game in which both teams played pretty good defense most of the night. The Celtics led by 12 points at one stage of the second half, but the Bullets outscored them by 19-4 to get back into the game.

Ballard made nine straight shots in one stretch and the sellout house was on its feet most of the final period.

The score was tied with two minutes to play, and after a 24-second violation against Boston Hayes put the Bullets on top, 95-93, on a dunk shot off a lob pass from Kevin Porter.

The next time down the floor, the Celtics got five shots at the basket before Maravich drilled in his game-winner.

"I knew I was in three-point range, but if I tried to go in, someone would have picked me up," Maravich said.

Maravich missed a jumper to start that sequence, but Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell kept getting offensive rebounds and popping the ball back up at the basket.

The Bullets' Wes Unseld finally got a hand on it and tapped it outside. It went right to Maravich, though. Bingo.

"It was my fault," said Unseled. "I should have gotten myself in better position, but I didn't. All I could do was get a hand on the ball and bat it out."

The Bullets still had the time and chances to win.

Hayes missed a turnaround jumper from the left side and Unseld was called for a loose ball foul at 0:33.

Cowens missed both free throws, but Maxwell outdueled Hayes for the rebound on the second miss. The Celtics ran the 24 second clock all the way down before Cowens missed a short jump shot. Ballard rebounded and got the ball upcourt to Grevey with four seconds left. But as Grevey pulled up to take a jump shot. Tiny Archibald ran into him.

No foul was called, but official Hugh Evans said the ball went out of bounds off Archibald with one second left.

Grevey screamed that he was fouled, but to no avail.

The Bullets called time to set a play.

It worked like a charm. Ballard was open for his 10-footer from just to the right of the lane. The ball bounced off the rim as the horn sounded.

"It was the shot we were looking for," Ballard said. "E set a good pick on (Larry) Bird and I was open. It just didn't fall."

Ballard added that with only one second left, he had to shoot more quickly than he normally would and didn't have time to get in a rhythm, "but the shot was there."

Ballard, despite having started the game with a strained back, made 13 of 19 shots until then, most of them long jumpers.

"He got as good a shot as you could want," said Boston Coach Bill Fitch.

"If it was 10 feet longer he probably would have made it like everything else he did tonight."

Maravich had started the last four games for Boston and averaged 21 points while shooting 56 percent. But regular Chris Ford was activated from the injured list yesterday and started in place of "the Piston."

Ford made only two of eight shots, and when the Celtics needed, the points in the fourth quarter, Fitch called on Maravich.

"What you saw tonight was the best of Maravich for 15 minutes and that's what we got him for," Fitch said. "The one ingredient we were lacking before we got him was a jump shooter down the stretch. Now we have it."

The victory was a big one for the Celtics. They had lost two in a row in their effort to hold off Philadelphia and finish with the best record in the conference and in the league.

"We needed this game as much as any one this year," Fitch said.

The Bullets have a day off today, then face Cleveland in Richfield on Thursday.

The Rockets play the Spurs again tonight, this time in Houston. The Knicks face the Celtics tonight in Boston and conclude their season Thursday at home against the 76ers.

"If Houston wins tomorrow (Wednesday), we're in trouble," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "We could afford a loss every time New York loses, but they won and we lost so that puts the monkey more on our back."