Celtic Cedric Maxwell calls Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland "the Beef Brothers." Bullets who in practice also have bounced off close to a quarter-ton of picks shake their heads, in agreement and memory.

"Nice to have 'em on our side," said Garry Witts.

"I've gotten headaches from running into Ricky," said guard Frank Johnson. "Once early on I got nailed and he said: 'That'll teach you to report (to training camp) late.' "

Ruland seemed as graceful as a side of steer to some Bullets at first glance, especially after he destroyed a backboard during layups before an exhibition game in the hinterlands. Both are National Basketball Association prime at the moment, with a touch of country. Pickin' on the court, grinnin' off it.

In the dressing-room euphoria of the Bullets' upset of the Celtics that evened the Eastern Conference semifinals at one game each, Mahorn could not resist letting everyone know where he was and Elvin Hayes was not.

"Can't wait to call 'E'," he said, "I'll just say (knowing all the while that E's Rockets had fizzled), 'Hey, E, how's it going?' Then I'll wait for him to ask how things are going up here. And when he does, I'll say, 'Oh, just rosy, baby. Just Rosyyyyyyy!' "

They certainly are.

On the first Washington play of Game 2 in Boston Wednesday, Johnson ran Tiny Archibald into a rib-rearranging pick by Mahorn and threw in a measly two-point jumper; on the last Washington play, he lost Danny Ainge on Prime A (Ruland) and dribbled around Prime AA (Mahorn) for the three-point winner.

Each Boston dizzy spell could have been avoided. The Celtics, according to Mahorn, had better learn to talk a little during games if they want to talk big after them.

"It's all on your other teammates to call 'pickout,' " he said yesterday after the Bullets prepared for Game 3 Saturday in Capital Centre. "I'll watch things and yell to our guys: 'Pick left' or 'Pick right.' Or 'Something behind you' or 'Something coming up.'

"It's also something where somebody is trying to take one of your friends out. That's what I mean. If I can get him out of the game, that's better for us."

A Tiny Archibald.

"Because he's a good penetrator. Hey, if I can get him (hard but legally), they'll have to bring somebody else off the bench. That'll help us out better."

Ruland, Johnson and Mahorn all have helped the Bullets out better than anyone imagined before the season began. Ruland and Johnson were rookies, and not highly regarded. Mahorn was a yearling who averaged about 13 minutes a game as a rookie playing behind the ultimate pick, Wes Unseld.

"What we have now is a scoring center," Kevin Grevey said of the situation. Mahorn and Ruland split the position, although they frequently play at the same time. "Put their averages together and we probably get 20 points out of the position a game. That never happened before.

"And we also are getting scoring out of the lead guard (in contrast to fine passes and few points from Tom Henderson during the championship run four years ago)."

Ruland has become as fluid near the basket as he is powerful, sensing exactly when to roll off a defender for a pass. Or for a body-scattering maneuver when he gets the ball. Ruland can score with either hand, and finishes a play very well. Then he usually will finish the finish.

Playing 400 fewer minutes than Mahorn, Ruland shot 221 more free throws during the regular season. Coming off the bench, he had a team-high 455 foul shots, and made 75 percent of them.

The Celtics were sick over Washington's getting so many offensive-rebound points (20) Wednesday, especially in the third period. Spencer Haywood once followed his own miss and scored; Don Collins scored on two second shots, one of them after Larry Bird blocked Greg Ballard; the last play of the quarter, after Kevin McHale blocked a shot by Collins, Johnson flicked a loose ball from a herd of larger players and put it back in.

"I guess it's only natural to focus on that one play (Johnson's three-pointer at the end)," said Maxwell. "but, really, they never would have been close enough to get the win if we didn't give them so many (12) offensive rebounds.

"Mahorn and Ruland. They keep leaning on you, moving closer to the basket. If you relax, they've got position. That's what happened tonight."

It was during this analysis that the Beef Brothers line slipped out.

"That's 'cause he was getting pinballed a lot," said Mahorn.

The Celtics hardly are delicate. Robert Parish was called for an intentional foul when he cleaved Ruland during a Celtic transition midway through the third period. And Maxwell is an exceptional, and exceptionally sly, defender. McHale and Rick Robey are known as Bump and Thump. Larry can be a mean Bird.

Among the irreverent Bullets, Ruland sometimes is called Sumo.

After practice once, he and Mahorn were playfully swatting one another as a television crew prepared for an interview, to the point where Ruland found himself on the floor. Laughing.

From across the gym, trainer John Lally could not resist yelling, "Samurai Center." It will get the Celtic seal of approval.