The Washington Bullets did everything right except put the ball in the basket last night.

In the second half, the team made only 17 of 49 shots, and despite a tenacious defensive performance, lost its fourth straight, bowing to Los Angeles, 90-87, before a capacity crowd of 19,035 at Capital Centre.

With leading scorer Greg Ballard sidelined with strained ligaments in his right ankle, the Bullets got double-figure scoring only from Kevin Grevey and Jeff Ruland. They were no match for the Lakers, who won here for the first time in their seven tries, dating to the 1976-77 season.

Magic Johnson, a questionable starter after sitting out Wednesday night's loss at home to New York with a back injury, was the difference before injuring his right foot and missing the last four minutes.

"It's very painful right now," Johnson said while sitting on a trainer's table, his foot packed in ice. "It's down in the foot, in one of those tough spots. Nothing popped and it doesn't feel like it's broken, but I'll have to get it X-rayed tomorrow.

"I didn't know if I could play tonight, but after getting heat treatments, my back felt pretty loose, so I thought I'd give it a try. We had to have this one. You don't want to continue a losing streak. I just had to play."

The all-star guard scored 22 points, had eight rebounds and six assists and led the Lakers' running game. The visitors had 25 fast-break points; the Bullets had six.

Johnson got the Lakers off to a great start, scoring 10 points in the first quarter as Los Angeles took a 29-14 lead.

"Magic really made the difference in that quarter," said Coach Pat Riley. "We had 29 fast breaks in the first half, and most of them came in that quarter."

Once the Bullets' defense regrouped, they contained the Lakers' running game, limiting Los Angeles to only 16 points in the third quarter. With Grevey leading the way, the Bullets finally took the lead, 73-70, with 7:48 to play, but they made only six shots, including a pair of three-pointers, the rest of the way.

"We just couldn't make the big plays at the end," said Grevey, who led the Bullets' attack with 22 points, two more than Ruland. "We did what we had to do to get back in the game, but we missed some easy little shots at the end."

After Ruland's layin with an offensive rebound gave the Bullets their three-point edge, they didn't score again for almost three minutes. By that time, the Lakers had recovered. They scored eight straight points, half on base-line jumpers by Norm Nixon, who had eight of his 18 points in the final seven minutes.

Frank Johnson, who made only two of 10 shots, scored on a 20-footer, but then the Bullets went another 2:38 without scoring, and the Lakers took control, 83-75.

Ruland converted another offensive rebound. After a turnover by the Lakers, Don Collins made two free throws. Johnson made a three-pointer to bring the Bullets within three, 85-82, with 1:31 remaining.

Johnson stole the ball from Nixon and set up a power layup by Ruland that cut the Lakers' lead to a point with 1:04 remaining.

With the partisan crowd screaming at a playoff pitch, Michael Cooper missed one of two free throws and the Bullets had a chance to tie the game. But Ruland was forced away from the basket and his turnaround jumper bounced off the rim.

Frank Johnson fouled Nixon 25 feet from the basket and the all-star guard made both free throw opportunities with 21 seconds left. Kurt Rambis added a foul shot, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was in danger of not scoring in double figures for the first time in 345 games, was fouled with four seconds left and made one to give him 10 points.

Grevey's three-pointer with one second left accounted for the final margin.