Inconsistency, thy name is Bullets.

Hot as chili peppers the first half, cold as the Arctic the next. Rebounding fouls in the first, wandering strangers in the second. Without center Wes Unseld, the Bullets were not only sometimes-with-it, sometimes-not, they looked downright lost, especially in the fourth quarter. Make that 104-96 lost to an inspired perspsired and anything but tired Chicago Bulls team.

Unseld, slowed to a halt by a pulled hamstring, did not play and is listed as a hopeful for Saturday night's game at Capital Centre against the Boston Celtics. No one will greet him more warmly than Elvin Hayes, who had trouble hitting the boards against Chicago's front line.

Washington Coach Gene Shue started rookie Rick Mahorn at center, and the pride of Hampton Institute played credibly the first half, despite Chicago's incessant clawing, maiming, and mutilating. Mahorn didn't fold, but he did collect four first-half pesonal fouls that took the starch out of his game and gave him a ticket to the bench before halftime.

Mahorn was all but invisible in the second half when Chicago's defense -- the best in the NBA -- was sterling. The Bulls limited the Bullets to eight points over a crucial fourth-quarter stretch, while Chicago substitute forward Scott May went wild.

May, playing like he has something to prove after four mediocre and injury-ridden years as a pro, crashed the boards and the party for the Bullets. He scored 14 points in the last period, 16 for the game. After May came out of the woodwork, the Bullets seemed petrified.

"We had a lot of chances but we didn't catch up," shrugged Shue in the losers' dressing room. "The Bulls' defense got better and better as they went along but no matter what defense a team plays, a team has to execute and we didn't. Our team can't play real loose. We have to get into plays and we weren't."

Truthfully, the Bullets looked like they couldn't get into the ball game all together at junctures in the second half. Why?

"You tell me why. I don't know," Hayes said. "We come out in the first half and we shoot and rebound and get Artis Gilmore and David Greenwood in foul trouble, then what do we do in the second? Nothing.

"In order to win, Bobby (Dandridge) and I have to get the ball. Did we get it? No. We don't have the great outside shooting that the other teams have, so we have to work it inside. Chicago didn't surprise me by going inside on us. I was surprised by our team. We go out and beat Cleveland and then what happens? Come to Chicago and get outrebounded and take lousy shots. We're not going to win until we start taking advantage of what we have."

Despite the loss, there were some bright moments for the Bullets. While one Wes was missing, another Wes couldn't miss. Present and well accounted for at Chicago Stadium in his second NBA start was guard Wes Matthews.

Wee Wes played well in the first half, guiding the Bullets to a 55-52 halftime lead with three sizzling fast breaks late in the second period. Matthews even jolted crusty Bulls fans when all 6-foot-1 of him jammed in a dunk. Chicago has its Ronnie Lester, who made his NBA debut just before halftime. Lester's coming out party had been delayed by a slow-healing and still troublesome right knee.

Mahorn scored 12 points and had eight rebounds in a decent, if inconsistent, showing.

Ditto for the rest of the Bullets.