Given the Washington Bullets' woeful play in Thursday's home-opening loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was a safe assumption that many of the 17,488 at Capital Centre last night were there to see the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

Little did anyone suspect, however, that the Bullets would be among the onlookers. After flirting for much of the game with a team record for scoring futility, the Bullets lost, 88-73, evening their NBA record at 2-2.

The starting lineup of Dan Roundfield, Cliff Robinson, Jeff Ruland, Jeff Malone and Gus Williams -- which, for the most part, has been sluggish in all four games this season -- shot a collective 20 for 58, an accurate reflection of the team's overall 34 percent shooting. Robinson, after missing two games with an eye irritation, wore goggles.

The Celtics, meanwhile, were anything but cold. A misfire by Dennis Johnson began the game for Boston, but the Celtics then made their next 11 shots and 13 of their first 15. Danny Ainge, a major contributor to the early spurt with 10 first-period points, was the game's high scorer with 20.

Ruland, the only Washington starter to shoot better than 50 percent from the field (seven for 12), led the Bullets with 18 points.

"Tonight I thought our defense was plenty good, but basically we just weren't smooth," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "Our starting combo just hasn't jelled at all. The problem is that we just haven't played together. I'll have some patience, but I'm not going to sit by and watch us get off to a slow start."

Despite their inability to score, the Bullets somehow managed to stay within striking distance, trailing 28-20 after the first quarter and 47-37 at halftime.

Perhaps that was because the Celtics, normally overpowering inside, chose to attempt their shots from the perimeter.

"We were really moving the ball well," Ainge said. "Dump it in, cut through, get it back outside. The way we were rotating the ball it seemed like D.J. (Dennis Johnson) or Scott (Wedman) or I were always open. It was like two of their guys had to guard three of ours. It's unusual for D.J. and I to get the most shots. It's more fun, though."

Not for the Bullets. Shue later would say that he "wasn't paying attention to what they were doing, I was more concerned with us." Despite his vigil, things fell apart for Washington during the third quarter. The Celtics scored the first eight points of the period to take an 18-point lead. Thereafter, the margin never was less than 14.

"That's the thing about the Bullets -- usually they make a run at the start of the third quarter," said Boston forward Larry Bird. "We thought that if we stopped that, we would win. They really didn't make a run until the fourth quarter tonight."

By then, the move was too late. All that was left to wonder was if the Bullets would break their record for fewest points in a game.

The mark is 71 against the Golden State Warriors in 1975. It wasn't until 1:40 remained in the game that Washington reached that figure, Ruland scoring on a dunk. With 59 seconds to play, the center scored again.

Ironically, before the game, it was the Celtics who feared coming out of the gate slowly.

"I was really worried," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "They didn't shoot that well their last game, so I thought they'd come out and go 100 percent."

According to most of the Bullets, there wasn't any good reason why they shouldn't have played better. "Whatever we shot, believe me, their defense wasn't that good," Shue said.

Said Ruland, "We could have gotten off any kind of shot we wanted to tonight. We've lost our continuity or whatever."

Williams said, "We'll play really good defense one night, then rebound well another. But you have to play all facets of the game well to win, especially against a team like the Celtics.