Bullet Coach Gene Shue said yesterday that rookie center Jeff Ruland, who has scored well lately, must learn to play defense before he can get more playing time.

The Bullets, fresh off a 107-88 rout of the Golden State Warriors Tuesday, face a big challenge tonight at Boston Garden when they meet the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics (WDCA-TV, Channel 20 at 7:30).

A key to the Bullet hopes tonight will be Ruland, who scored a career-high 23 points against the Warriors and had 18 the previous game against Chicago.

In spite of Ruland's recent performances, Shue said he will continue to start Jim Chones, who will team with Rick Mahorn and Greg Ballard in the front court.

"Jeff has played very well at times," Shue said. "But I believe in really bringing players along slowly. There has to be control. With a player like Ruland, he's got to learn to play fundamental defense. Progress is the most important thing with a player like him. His minutes could increase as he learns."

The Celtics have more talented big men than any other team in the league and Ruland is needed to offset the firepower of two of those big Celtic reserves, 6-foot-10 Kevin McHale and 6-10 Rick Robey.

"I think we're ready to surprise some people now," Shue said. "We still have our problems on offense, but if we stay tough on the defense, we'll beat some good teams."

The Bullets already have had two shots at the Celtics this season, losing, 124-100, in the season opener in Boston and losing, 90-84, at Capital Centre two weeks ago.

The victory over Golden State broke a four-game losing streak and improved the Bullets to 4-8. At this time last year, they were 3-9.

The Celtics are 11-2.

The Bullets have won only one game on the road, at Atlanta Nov. 12.

The Celtics shot a season low 37 percent against the Bullets the last time they played and needed 21 points and three blocked shots from McHale to pull out the victory.

The Bullets led going into the final quarter, but the Celtic depth wore them down.

Shue added that he probably would put Ballard on Larry Bird and Mahorn on Cedric Maxwell tonight.

The Bullets will return to Capital Centre Saturday to play the Indiana Pacers at 8:05.

The Bullets are last in the NBA in offense and the Celtics are first in defense and point differential, winning their games by an average of 13.8 points.