The undermanned Washington Bullets, playing without Jeff Ruland and Charles Davis, who were injured, and Ricky Sobers, who was ejected, played as hard and as well as they could for as long as they could last night before wilting under the magic of the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird.
Bird, who scored only two points in the first half, sent the game into overtime with an off-balance three-point shot with two seconds left in regulation. Then he scored eight points in the extra period as the Celtics ended the Bullets' eight-game winning streak, 120-117, at Capital Centre.
In the race for the last playoff spot in the NBA's Eastern Conference, Washington fell two games behind Atlanta, which defeated Indiana last night, and remained one game behind New York, which lost to Phoenix.
Bird finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, 10 of them in the second half.
The Bullets used only eight players and six of them scored in double figures, but without Ruland, Davis and Sobers, they didn't have the depth to stay with the bigger and stronger Celtics. They outrebounded the visitors, 52-42, but when the game was on the line, they had no antidote for Bird.
Rick Mahorn, who had 24 points and 15 rebounds, made two foul shots with 1:10 left in regulation to give the Bullets a 102-98 lead.
Kevin McHale scored on a move inside to cut the lead to two with 56 seconds left. Frank Johnson's layup was blocked by Robert Parish, then Johnson rebounded the ball when Scott Wedman missed a jumper for Boston with 22 seconds left.
McHale fouled Johnson intentionally to stop the clock with seven seconds left, but the Bullets guard made only the second of the two shots for a 103-100 lead.
"I just missed the first one; that's all," said Johnson, who finished with 24 points and nine assists. "The situation will come up again and I'll make it."
The Celtics called time out to set their play, then the Bullets called time to set their defense.
Parish inbounded the ball to Bird, who dribbled back toward the top of the key and then slithered under Don Collins and made a 24-foot shot to tie the score.
"He was falling and off balance," said Collins. "He was my man all the way and my job was to stop him from taking the three-pointer. I forced him to his left and he somehow leaned under me and just made it."
Johnson missed a 25-footer at the buzzer and the game went into overtime.
The Bullets scored first in the extra period when Mahorn made a layup, but Bird responded with two foul shots. After Greg Ballard made a 15-footer, Bird scored on a running one-hander that started the Celtics on a 6-0 run that gave them a 111-107 lead with 1:52 remaining.
Johnson made two three-point shots in the last 46 seconds, his last one cutting the lead to 118-117 with six seconds left. But with no timeouts left, the Bullets had to foul and they fouled Bird. He made both shots. With no time outs, the Bullets had to inbound the ball from under the basket and Wedman intercepted Dave Batton's long inbounds pass.
The Bullets had beaten the Celtics twice earlier this season by slowing the tempo and using their strength inside to wear down the Celtics. But without Ruland, who missed his second game with a sprained right wrist, they were almost forced to play the Celtics' running game; and they almost beat them at it, too.
"We wanted to hit the boards with five people and try to run the break," Johnson said. "That's not what we'd normally do with against them, but without Jeff . . . "
It was still a physical game as fights or near fights broke out between Sobers and Charles Bradley, Parish and Mahorn, and Johnson and Gerald Henderson. Only Sobers and Bradley were ejected, in the third period. The loss of Sobers hurt the Bullets more than the loss of Bradley hurt the Celtics. Collins and Johnson had to play the rest of the game as guards and the team was without its best defensive guard.
"Our defense was excellent tonight," Coach Gene Shue of the Bullets said, "and you really expect to win this kind of game. We had complete control with a two-point lead with seven seconds left and shooting two free throws.
"We played great, but that Bird . . . That three-point shot kills me, kills me because I'm the one who pushed so hard for it in the first place. I told everyone how good it was for the game. They can take it back now."