There had been time for much of the emotion to wear off, and now Gene Shue was showing that some men can be lyrical and livid at the same time.

"Great as we played--and we were fabulous," he said, his face still drawn, "as proud as I am of this team, we blew it. We had it--and blew it. Once you have it, you gotta get it."

Perhaps this double-overtime loss to the defending NBA champion Celtics, as scintillating a show as these near-endless playoffs may produce, will be the final necessary lesson in the Bullets' search for excellence. In defeat, they grew yet another foot taller in the minds of many.

Except the bottom-liners of basketball. The Shues. This team in this game capsulized this season: it had the capacity to grab your heart, and to break it; to rally from a 13-point deficit in four minutes, then to botch a five-point lead in one.

The plays that will stay riveted in Shue's mind for months, perhaps determine how the team is shaped for the future, are not Frank Johnson's heroic three-point heaves or Jeff Ruland's inside hooks over the mobile mountain named Robert Parish.

"Two plays," he said, and we'll excuse him for then proceeding to rattle off three. "The inbounds pass (in the final 10 seconds of the first overtime that ended with Larry Bird tying up Johnson for a jump ball). It's not uncommon for us not to throw the ball to the right person."

The idea was for Greg Ballard to throw to the first open man. Johnson was double-teamed.

"Then we let (Kevin) McHale get that steal (and layup with Washington still up three in the final 45 seconds of that nightmarish first overtime). That's the way we've done it all year. And he gets the follow-up (of Tiny Archibald's prayer to force the second overtime).

"We just don't have a rebounding team."

What they had, good and bad, when the game became memorable, was Johnson. Few players ever are as involved in as many pivotal plays as the Bullets' point guard was in the loss that eliminated his team from the playoffs.

Early on, Johnson was dreadful.

"A matter of not being aggressive," he admitted. "I didn't make my opponent work until maybe near the end of (regulation)."

In truth, it was a whole lot earlier. A minute or so after Gerald Henderson threw the ball off his head after running him into a pick by Rick Robey that started the second fuss-but-no-fight in the last three games. From distances that seemed to range from 30 feet to 30 miles, Johnson threw in three straight three-point shots.

What does the hoop look like from out there, a mortal wondered.

"Same as 20 feet," he said. "Same as 15."

This was the fellow who had missed nearly everything he tried lately, 24 of his last 28 shots before the game and two of three in the first half. All of a sudden a man who can scarcely hit the backboard from 12 feet makes everything from 30.

"More or less free-lancing," he admitted. "They knew it was coming; I knew it was coming. And I went for it. Making the first had a carryover. It was great. So I kept it going."

Was there ever a problem getting the ball?

Johnson laughed.

"I always see the ball," he said, "because I got it. I distribute it."

The officials didn't see him waving his hands for a timeout after McHale's fateful follow-up. One second was showing on the scoreboard. Then it vanished.

"I turned to the official," Johnson said, "and held my hands up high." He repeated the frantic waving. "I screamed. He didn't hear me. The clock had stopped."

Now Johnson's replay came to a halt.

"Careful now," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. He meant to not be too critical of the officials. "Fine. Could take all of your playoff money."

So Johnson merely added, "Jake (O'Donnell) told me he didn't see me."

And of the incident with Henderson and Robey that brought both benches of players running onto the floor again--and included Ruland stiff-arming Henderson to the floor at one point and Celtics Coach Bill Fitch seemingly trying to jump over calmer heads toward several Bullets:

"We're all such competitive people. Robey (after Henderson hit Johnson with the ball) said, 'Don't hit him.' After the timeout, we (Johnson and Robey) just looked at each other. Trying to intimidate."

Later, almost immediately after leaving the floor, Johnson went into the Celtics' dressing room and repaired the friendship with Robey and Henderson.

"Even in a pickup game with your friends," Johnson said, "if everyone is competitive something's gonna happen. If you want to win."

And neither team includes quit in its vocabulary.

"A great season," he said. "I'm sorry it had to end this early."

He sank to his dressing-room seat.

"I feel like an old man," he said.

He'd played like a rookie at times and a 10-year veteran at times.

"To come back against a great team like the Celtics," he said, "maybe will carry over until next year. We know we can play (with the elite teams in the NBA). He (Shue) told us we can only build on this.

"My rookie season ended with the last game of the (regular) season. There was nothing to lose (during that three-point binge), so I went for it. If guys flying at me bothered me at all, I wouldn't have been able to make the shots."

The first wave of reporters had gone, and Johnson had room to turn his body. His elbow hit a soda can, and much of what he was about to sip spilled into the shoe he was about to slip on. The last bit of irony to a sweet and bitter night.