The ailing Bullets might get the boost they need tonight from an unexpected source.

Usually, games with the Los Angeles Lakers are looked forward to with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the hospital, but the team that arrived here from the West Coast hardly is a picture of health.

"Right now we're definitely at the low point of the season," said Coach Pat Riley after his Lakers were caught by the struggling New York Knicks, 98-94, Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

After running up a 27-7 record and a five-game lead over second-place Seattle by Jan. 3, the Lakers, who play the Bullets tonight at Capital Centre (8:05, WTOP-1500), have won only half of their last 14 games and have lost two straight.

"There are reasons why we're losing games down the stretch," Riley continued. "We had a meeting (30 minutes before the New York game) to examine why we're breaking down and surrendering leads at the end."

The loss to the Knicks was typical of the way the Lakers have been playing lately. They led, 91-83, with 6:21 to play, but their only basket the rest of the way was a desperation three-point field goal.

"We're going to do everything we can to turn things around," Riley said. "We're going to bury our emotions, the past and go on."

What is confronting the Lakers, now percentage points behind Seattle in the Pacific Division, is four road games in the next six days. After taking on the Bullets, they will play Boston in a nationally televised game Sunday. Following a day off, they will visit Atlanta and Kansas City on successive nights before returning home to face high-scoring San Antonio.

And just when all their strength is needed, the Lakers have a couple of starters whose status is questionable. Magic Johnson woke up Wednesday, after a 119-117 loss to Golden State the night before, with a sore lower back. The All-Star guard sat out the loss to New York and visited a doctor instead of accompanying the team here yesterday. He was expected late last night and Riley is counting on him against the Bullets.

Kurt Rambis, the free agent who has emerged as the latest replacement for the injured Mitch Kupchak (progressing nicely from knee surgery), sprained a toe while jogging during the All-Star Game break and missed the Golden State game. The 6-foot-8 forward from Santa Clara had been averaging nine rebounds and six points as a starter, but was ineffective in 13 minutes against the Knicks.

Another reason why the Lakers have been struggling is the puzzling lack of progress by Bob McAdoo, signed as a free agent Dec. 24. The former three-time NBA scoring champion is averaging only 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds while making 43 percent of his shots.

"McAdoo has been very disappointing," a team spokesman said. "He's still not in shape. We've been on the road a lot and he just hasn't had enough practice time. He hasn't been playing that much because he's just not shooting very well."

The Bullets played well in their only game with the Lakers, extending them to the final minute before losing, 102-98, Dec. 8 in the Forum. Rick Mahorn limited Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to nine points until late in the final period, when the All-Star center made three shots.

The Bullets' Greg Ballard, sidelined by strained ligaments in his right ankle, will not play tonight and may not be able to play Sunday afternoon against Denver. Coach Gene Shue said he probably will start Charlie Davis in Ballard's spot again, although the rookie from Vanderbilt was not effective defensively in Wednesday night's 122-96 loss at Philadelphia.

By starting Davis, Shue is able to retain his regular substituting pattern, bringing Don Collins off the bench to quicken the pace and inject some scoring when Kevin Grevey is on the bench.

The Bullets have lost their last three and have dropped to .500 (22-22) after winning seven in a row. Following the Denver game, they start a six-game road trip.