The New York Knicks trailed the Washington Bullets by 10 points in the first quarter tonight, then applied the clamps and came away with an 85-79 victory before 7,355 at Madison Square Garden.

The 79 points were the fewest the Bullets have scored this season. Their previous low was 88.

It was only the Bullets' third loss in their last 10 games, but it dropped them to 10-11 and was their second to New York, now 7-15.

The Knicks went into the game as the top defensive team in the National Basketball Association, yielding 97.9 points a contest, and the Bullets were the league's third-best, giving up 100.1. So both sides expected a low scoring game. But the Bullets weren't prepared for what the Knicks did to them.

"The Knicks played great defense, and so did we, but we couldn't get anything from our bench (reserves)," said Coach Gene Shue.

"The Knicks overplayed us and wouldn't let us make the passes we wanted to. We aren't a one-on-one team, so we have to execute our plays properly if we expect to win."

Bernard King scored 11 of his game-high 18 points in the third period, when the Knicks moved to a 66-61 lead after being tied at 55. Then Marvin Webster got six points and eight rebounds in the first eight minutes of the fourth period as New York moved to a 10-point lead and held on for the victory.

Don Collins and Frank Johnson each scored 15 for the Bullets, but they hardly were enough to offset 42 percent team shooting.

John Lucas, who did not show up for practice Friday, the second time he has done that this season, was fined $250 and played only five minutes tonight.

Shue said the team still is deciding whether further disciplinary action would be taken. Team sources said the Bullets are contemplating releasing him.

"I had some personal business to take care of and that's the only comment I want to make on it," Lucas said of Friday's absence. "I just hope I'm not too deep in the doghouse."

Lucas relieved Johnson in the second quarter, as he has been doing the past month, but soon sat down again. The next time Johnson needed a rest, Shue used rookie Bryan Warrick.

Warrick didn't take a shot and had one assist and one rebound in 10 minutes, but Shue still praised his performance.

"I was pleased with the way Bryan played," said Shue, "and he'll probably be getting a chance now."

Warrick had played only two minutes in the nine previous games.

Spencer Haywood, activated off the injured list Friday, played his first game since Nov. 14 and did not do well. He said the strained ligaments in his right calf are fine, but that his timing and stamina are not.

"I just have to keep working to get back where I want to be," said Haywood, who made one of six shots and had four rebounds in 20 minutes.

"I have to go with Spencer because we need him," said Shue.

New York reserves Sly Williams and Vince Taylor each scored four points in the first three minutes of the second period to tie the score at 26. The lead changed sides seven times, with three ties, before Bill Cartwright scored on a turnaround jumper to give the Knicks a 41-39 halftime advantage.

The last time the score was tied was at 55, on a 15-footer by Johnson. Ernie Grunfeld made a 16-footer on New York's next possession and the Knicks were back ahead to stay.