The Washington Bullets pushed the Boston Celtics as close to the edge as they could last night, but the defending world champions dipped into their seemingly bottomless bag of magic and pulled out a 98-97 overtime victory before a Capital Centre sellout crowd of 19,035.

It was Boston's 12th straight victory, equaling the longest winning streak in the National Basketball Association this season.

The Bullets had a 16-point third quarter lead, but couldn't deliver the knockout blow. The Celtics methodically got themselves back into the contest and sent it into overtime when rookie Danny Ainge got his only basket of the night, on a fadeaway 19-foot shot, Kevin Grevey in his face, with three seconds remaining.

Larry Bird, who didn't start, scored eight of his 31 points in the overtime as the Celtics pulled out their second one-point victory in a row over the Bullets. Bird also had 21 rebounds, equaling his high in the league. Greg Ballard had 20 points and a season high 17 rebounds for the Bullets.

Robert Parish put the Celtics ahead, 96-94, with a 16-foot jump shot with 23 seconds left in overtime. The Bullets called timeout and tried to get the ball inside to Jeff Ruland, but Parish knocked it out of bounds with 13 seconds left.

Ruland got to inbound the ball from under the basket, but his pass toward Ballard was intercepted by Cedric Maxwell. Spencer Haywood fouled Bird with a second left and he made both free throws.

Grevey's three-point field goal as the game ended accounted for the final score.

"I was trying to throw the ball to Greg and didn't have any other options," said Ruland. "My five seconds were running out. I don't know where Maxwell came from. It was just a stupid pass."

The defeat left a bitter taste in the Bullets' mouths, as they felt they were the victims of bad officiating by Jack Madden and Dick Bavetta. Bullets owner Abe Pollin called it a "disgrace."

"Somewhere along the way we're going to have to file a protest or something," said Haywood, "because some of those calls just weren't right. This was a big game for us and it should have been decided by the teams on the floor, not the officials."

Boston shot 31 free throws, Washington 12.

The Bullets' troubles with the officials started early in the second period when Rick Mahorn was ejected, two technical fouls quickly having been called against him by Madden.

Mahorn had gotten off to a blazing start, making seven of nine shots as the Bullets went ahead, 38-31, with 8:52 left in the half.

There was a scramble for a rebound, M.L. Carr came up with the ball and was fouled by Mahorn. Mahorn later said, "I never touched him," and said he yelled that at Madden. That cost him one technical; when he persisted, Madden hit him with the second and automatic ejection.

"I said something to him (Madden), but it wasn't enough to get thrown out," said Mahorn. "I guess you just can't say anything."

Bird made only one of the two technical foul free throws and Carr missed both personal foul free throws. But on the Bullets' next possession, Ruland was called for an offensive foul, which brought Coach Gene Shue off the bench screaming. Madden gave him a technical, then Bavetta slapped one on Jim Chones. This time Bird made both shots.

"Losing a player like Mahorn really hurt them, but when you open your mouth and say things you aren't supposed to, that's what'll happen to you," said Bird. "They deserved all the technicals they got."

Despite blowing the 16-point lead, the Bullets appeared to have the game won in regulation when Haywood, who had 24 points, made two free throws to give his team an 86-83 lead with 14 seconds left.

The Celtics called time to get the ball at midcourt. As soon as Carr inbounded it, Ruland, to the chagrin of Shue, fouled Bird. Bird made the first shot and missed the second. The ball was tapped around from one player to another and finally went out of bounds, off Haywood, in front of the Bullet bench with seven seconds left.

After a 20-second timeout, Carr inbounded the ball to Ainge, whose jumper sent the game into overtime.