A familiar thing happened to the Washington Bullets en route to their 118-115 victory last night over the Portland Trail Blazers:

A 20-point lead dwindled to 13 by halftime and seven by early in the third period.

Washington got the lead back to 13 only to let it fall to nine, 91-82, after three quarters.

At the start of the fourth quarter, the visitors scored 10 straight points while the Bullets were firing blanks. Not only did Washington fail to get off a field goal attempt for the first 2:30, it didn't score until more than a minute later.

From that point, the game was a virtual standoff, with Washington clinching its second consecutive win and sixth straight at Capital Centre with one of the most fundamental plays in basketball: the pick and roll. More specifically, the Bullets' ability to carry it out and Portland's failure.

With 1:07 left, and Washington trailing by 113-112, Manute Bol contributed the last of his six blocks. Eighteen seconds later, Jeff Ruland was rolling toward the basket for the go-ahead layup after he set a screen for Gus Williams.

Portland immediately took a timeout to set up a play, but when Clyde Drexler tried to pass to Sam Bowie in virtually the same situation, the ball bounced off the center's face and out of bounds to Washington.

Now the Bullets took a timeout. After the break, they cleared the floor for Williams, who drove to the basket. When Drexler came over to help on defense, Williams passed off to Jeff Malone in the right corner. Malone's jumper hit nothing but net and put Washington in a commanding position.

A final basket by Drexler with seven seconds to play was offset by a two Frank Johnson free throws. A desperation last-second three-point attempt by Drexler fell short.

"We deserved the game, we did enough to win," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "For the most part we played rather well."

When it counted the most, Malone was sharp. The guard finished with 28 points, 12 in the last period as he hit his final six attempts. "I knew they wouldn't let Gus get the layup," Malone said. "Drexler had to stop him and Gus was able to get the ball to me."

Ruland added 26 points and 15 rebounds and fell just two assists short of his second consecutive triple-double. Williams, who scored 12 points in the first half and finished with 15, totaled a season-high 13 assists.

Kiki Vandeweghe led all scorers with 30 points but it was Drexler, scoring 15 of his 19 in the fourth quarter, who brought Portland back into the game. The 6-foot-7 swingman made the shot of the night, a back-to-the-basket bank shot that went through a thicket of players as the Trail Blazers made their fourth-quarter surge.

More than a little passiveness on Washington's part also contributed to Portland's comeback.

"We just don't do well when we're leading at halftime, it's happened enough that I can say that," said Shue. "You have to have some killer instinct. No matter how many points in front you are, you have to put it to them."

The Bullets did that in the first half, when a trapping defense led by Bol and Johnson extended a 37-30 first-quarter margin into a 60-40 lead with 3:03 left in the half. The Trail Blazers scored nine of the next 11 points, however.

"All we needed was to execute better and I thought we would score," said Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. "We weren't getting good shots before."

Shue felt the shots Portland got in the third and fourth periods were the same, it was the attitude that changed.

"In the first half they were just reluctant to shoot the ball from the outside, they were pausing on their shots," he said. "That's when the trap works, when the other team gets cautious. In the second half, though, they just said, 'This is an open shot. Just pass me the ball in the corner and I'll take it.' "

With Vandeweghe and Jim Paxson filling that role and Drexler whipping his body and ball all over the floor, what began as an outstanding performance appeared to be turning into a nightmare for the Bullets until Malone took over.

"I feel very good about my shooting right now, I'm very confident," he said. "It means a lot to a player when the coach and the other guys on the team believe in you."