Larry Bird and rookie Kevin McHale combined for some last-minute magic last night to lift the Boston Celtics to a gutty 101-99 victory over the Bullets.

A Capital Centre crowd of 11,718, the second largest of the season, was treated to everything they could hope to see in a basketball game, but in the final analysis, it was two big shots and a block by the 6-foot-10 McHale and a great steal and a pair of baskets by Bird that made the difference.

Boston looked like the legendary Celtics of old as they ran their fast break virtually at will much of the first half, even though they led by only six points at intermission.

The third period was a nightmare for the Celtics. They didn't make a field goal until the 6:08 mark of the period and the Bullets ran off one 13-0 spurt and another 9-0 streak as they opened a 14-point lead, 83-69. A three-point field goal by Bird with nine seconds left cut the Bullet advantage to 11 going into the final quarter.

It was a quarter the Celtics could call their own.

They began by reeling off a 15-4 scoring spurt to tie the game at 87 with 5:53 to play.

The Bullets came back to life to score the next six points, four of those by Elvin Hayes, who led all scorers with 28 points.

A driving layup by Tiny Archibald cut the Bullet lead to 95-93 with 2:30 left and on the Bullet's next possession, McHale blocked a Kevin Grevey jumper. The outcome of that was a Bird dunk to tie it, 95-95, with 1:52 remaining.

Hayes got the lead back for the Bullets with a difficult turnaround jumper from the left corner while he was being double-teamed.

The Celtics tied it again when McHale made a fadeaway jumper from the right corner with Wes Unseld in his face.

On their next possession, the Bullets were trying to get the ball inside to Hayes, but Bird stepped in and intercepted Unseld's pass to start a Boston fast break. He hurried upcourt fast enough to score at the other end and put the Celtics ahead, 99-97, with 56 seconds left.

"I just never saw Bird," Unseld said. "If I had, I wouldn'nt have thrown the pass."

The Bullets came up empty their next possession, too, as Hayes missed a jump shot and the rebound went off Unseld's foot and out of bounds.

McHale made a 10-foot jumper, again over Unseld, to ice the game for Boston.

"If we can stay in a game and keep it close to the end, our defense can usually win it for us," said Boston Coach Bill Fitch. "Our guards really took it to them in the fourth period, too. They were horrible in the third period and that's what got us in the hole. They were so bad if I could have I would have activated (Celtic Assistant Coach) K.C. (Jones)."

In the third period, the Bullets, mainly guard Wes Matthews, ran circles around the Celtics. Matthews collected 10 points in that quarter.

The Celtic offense was practically nonexistent that period, too, as Boston shot 27 percent and committed seven turnovers. They scored only 15 points in the quarter.

Things got so bad that Fitch even moved Bird to guard for the last four minutes.

"Bird's three-point shot at the end of the third quarter was a big play," Bullet Coach Gene Shue said. "The ball was going out of bounds and he reached out and stopped it and then makes that shot. He made a lot of great plays tonight. He's just one nice player."

In 43 minutes, Bird scored 21 points and had 13 rebounds, three assists and three steals. McHale finished with 10 points, eight in the fourth quarter, and two blocked shots.

"This was really a hard loss for us," Shue said. "I hate losses like this. We were right there playing a good game against a good team and we get nothing.

"It all comes down to scoring, though. We just have to find a way to get more of it."

Fitch felt the Bullets got plenty of scoring from Hayes.

"I've never seen a Washington team not be in it at the end when Hayes is having a night like that," he said.