In many ways, last night's basketball game between Washington and Boston wasn't a typical Bullets-Celtics affair. To begin with, there wasn't the usual bruising contact underneath the basket. And the Bullets, even without injured center Jeff Ruland, outrebounded Boston, 61-41.

One thing did remain consistent, however. Washington came out on the short end of the score, losing, 104-98, before a sellout crowd of 19,105 at Capital Centre.

Kevin McHale led Boston with 29 points and Robert Parish scored 18, but in another unusual twist, on this night, the Celtics' main man was Danny Ainge.

Usually overshadowed by all-stars McHale, Parish, Larry Bird (13 points) and Dennis Johnson, the unheralded guard scored 20 points, including 12 in the final 12 minutes to keep Washington at bay.

With the loss, the fourth in five games against Boston, the Bullets, led by Gus Williams' 27 points, fell to .500 at 35-35. Boston continued its run atop the Atlantic Division, improving to 57-14.

"Quite honestly, I thought we played a damn good game," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We outrebounded them, didn't have many turnovers (12) and controlled Bird . . . for us, it was very, very good."

With the exception of Washington's 112-95 victory over Boston Nov. 10, there hasn't been more than an eight-point difference in the five games between the teams this season. But according to Shue, recently it hasn't mattered who his team has gone up against.

"We just have a terribly difficult time scoring points," he said. "That's what's been happening for the last two months. I hate to keep repeating myself, but if you add it all up, if we struggle to score 100 points, what team in the NBA could we beat?"

Despite the Bullets' offensive problems (shooting just 44 percent and making four of 10 free throws), the answer to Shue's question nearly was Boston.

Down by 15 points early in the second quarter and five (55-50) at the half, Washington fell behind by 100-92 in the fourth quarter before making a comeback.

That occurred when Darren Daye and Williams hit consecutive three-point jump shots to bring the Bullets to within two. But the second shot came with just seven seconds left in the game. Needing to foul to regain possession of the basketball, Daye selected Ainge, who hit two free throws to put the game on ice.

"On a scale of one to 10, our rebounding tonight was zero," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "We weren't up to blocking out and getting rebounds, but we won because we were able to make some adjustments."

Some of those adjustments involved Ainge. That he would make the late foul shots was predictable, but he also had stopped the Bullets from making any sustained run in the late going. Just one of four from the field at the half, Ainge hit eight of Boston's 10 points in one fourth-quarter stretch, three baskets coming on long-range jumpers.

"I had missed about four or five shots in a row so it was about time I hit some wasn't it?" Ainge asked. "I think they were really concerned about our inside game and when I finally did hit a couple of shots it gave me a little confidence and the others started looking for me a little more."

Despite the heroics, Ainge couldn't escape the needle of McHale, who was quick to point out that in comparison to the opposing guard -- in this case, Williams -- on a statistic created by combining points scored and points from assists, Ainge came out on the short end, 47-24.

McHale continued his torrid scoring stretch. Starting the last 16 games in place of Cedric Maxwell, who just was reactivated following arthroscopic knee surgery, McHale has averaged almost 25 points a game.

Like Ainge, McHale said he also has benefited from increased confidence. "We've been running the ball more and that helps my game," he said. "There are times when it seems like you can't buy a shot, right now, though, it's like the basket is bigger. Even when you take a bad shot it's like you can will the ball into the hoop."

Shue probably would agree that the Bullets could benefit from a little of that willpower. One key in the contest last night was the defensive job the Celtics turned in on Jeff Malone, who finished with just 10 points, the first time in eight games that he scored fewer than 20.

Although Bird's point total was just three over from his low of the year, the all-star forward had 12 rebounds and nine assists. "Some of those rebounds led to baskets and there were another 18 points from his assists. He just did it in a different way tonight," said McHale.