The Washington Bullets kept coming back tonight in Boston Garden but the Boston Celtics just as consistently kept repelling them and ended their seven-game winning streak, 118-110.
Trailing by 20 points in the second quarter, the Bullets (9-6) rallied to catch up, 67-67, in the third quarter before Larry Bird's three-point play put the Celtics ahead again to stay.
Bird scored 17 of his game-high 29 points in the second half and guard Dennis Johnson's 23 for Boston included his 10,000th NBA point. Washington was led by Gus Williams with 24 points and Cliff Robinson with 23.
Coach Gene Shue was pleased with the Bullets' repeated comebacks but not so happy with what necessitated them. "When you have to come back like that it's a bad sign," he said. "The Celtics played smart and our defense wasn't that strong."
Still, Shue felt his team "had a chance to win, right up until the end of the game." The feeling was fostered in part by a strong rush in the final five minutes. With the Bullets down by 108-95 and 4:02 to play, center Jeff Ruland stole a Boston inbounds pass and scored.
That basket was followed by three three-point shots by Washington, one by Williams and a pair by his back-court partner, Dudley Bradley (20 points). They cut the Boston lead to 114-106 with 1:53 left. Twenty seconds later, Robinson blocked a shot by Kevin McHale, but a pass by Bradley was stolen by Bird, who fed McHale for a layup, effectively ending the contest.
Boston Coach K.C. Jones felt no particular satisfaction in the reversal of his club's only loss in 11 games, a 112-95 rout by the Bullets Nov. 10 at Capital Centre.
"You can't go into games thinking about revenging this game or that," said Jones. "If that were the case, playing teams like Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit, you would be avenging yourself a lot of nights."
Still, before the game there were others in the Boston locker room with that in mind. The team was in a jovial mood after watching Boston College's fantastic football finish against Miami, but the air was broken when the television was switched to a film of the first Boston-Washington game. "There goes all the fun," moaned McHale.
Some Celtics still seemed stunned at how easily the Bullets dispatched them two weeks ago. "They've always played us tough but they've never beaten us that badly before," said guard Danny Ainge. "That's why this is a big game for us."
Both teams were plenty tough at the game's outset. The first rebound didn't come until almost two minutes into the game because neither team missed on its first three possessions. When the miss did finally come, Bird swooped in for the rebound and scored.
That goal set Boston off on an 13-4 run to a 19-10 lead. The Celtics held steady through the period, which ended 36-28. They kept the heat on in the second quarter, using a 15-3 run to go out in front, 51-31.
Here, Washington began one of its many rallies, a 19-4 spree climaxed by an incredible shot by Williams, scoring with Ainge glued to his back.
Bird provided his version of "That's Incredible" in the third quarter. Leading, 59-55, at intermission, Boston stretched its margin to 92-83 after three periods, much of the damage being done by 13 points from the all-star forward.
Boston eventually ran the margin to 107-91 before the last Washington surge, an effort that, like the others, fell a bit short. "We gave it a good effort, but if we had been a little more consistent on defense things might have been different," said Williams.
Shue agreed. "We don't feel badly about losing to the Celtics. They always had control and we just couldn't get over the hump."
Rick Mahorn of the Bullets, whose left ankle was stepped on in the victory over Kansas City Wednesday night, played only nine minutes tonight. That could be a reason the Celtics outrebounded the Bullets, 50-33.
Mahorn is expected to play as the Bullets try to get back on track at home against the Detroit Pistons Saturday (7:30 p.m., HTS).