Gene Shue is a man who needs no excuse for optimism. However, the recent NCAA championships have renewed the spirit of the Washington Bullets' coach as the team enters its final eight days of the regular season.

Although his team has lost two consecutive games and tonight plays on the road against the team with the best record in the NBA -- the Boston Celtics -- Shue believes the Bullets are capable of rebounding from their lethargy of recent weeks.

"Something good could still happen. Hey, I watched Villanova win the championship on Monday," Shue said.

As the regular season dwindles, it appears that merely "something good" might not be enough to resurrect Washington. Wednesday night's 100-91 loss to the Chicago Bulls was only the latest chapter in the Bullets' struggle to find some offensive firepower.

"If you've looked at our team over the last 2 1/2 months, you'd have to say that we're just an average group," he said. "Going for that long stretch where we couldn't win two consecutive games (the team went more than two months without back-to-back victories) should have told you something. During that time, we should have been stringing some wins together. We were playing teams we would beat at full strength."

Of course, the Bullets haven't been at full strength over those two-plus months. With Jeff Ruland continuing to take therapy for his strained right shoulder, Wednesday the team re-signed guard Don Collins for the remainder of the season. According to Shue, Ruland and the NBA rulebook, that doesn't mean that the center is out for the season.

"One doesn't have anything to do with the other," said Ruland. "I'm still hopeful of playing this season. I think it's a case where they're looking for all the help they can get, and Don's a good post-up player."

The Bullets still can reactivate Ruland any time before the start of the playoffs. The only requirement is that all playoff teams must file a binding, 12-man playoff roster with the league by midnight, April 14, four days before the playoffs begin.

Thus, Shue's optimism.

"Suppose Jeff got better all of a sudden, that changes everything," Shue said. "Even if he's not in total shape, teams still have to double-team him because of his reputation, and that would open up a lot of other things for us."

Although the Celtics lost two consecutive games for the first time this season earlier this week, they rebounded with a 119-103 victory over Indiana Wednesday. As has been the case for most of this season, Boston was led by Larry Bird. Returning after missing the two losses because of bursitis in his right elbow, Bird scored 35 points against the Pacers.

At the same time, Philadelphia was losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a fourth straight time, giving Boston a five-game lead over the 76ers at the top of the Atlantic Division, with six games remaining.