In the frantic days leading up to the Washington Bullets season, Terry Catledge hardly could be blamed for wondering if he was coming or going.

After one of the few outstanding efforts turned in by a Washington player during last season's playoff elimination against Detroit, Catledge felt primed to play a major role this season. But he was relegated to the background with the acquisition of free agent Bernard King.

Now, after a slow start perhaps brought on by his own uncertainty as well as problems from a neck injury he suffered last summer in a car accident that killed a good friend, Catledge has played his way back into prominence heading into tonight's game against the Boston Celtics at Capital Centre at 7:30.

The Celtics will offer a test of sorts, both for Catledge and the Bullets. After playing well in their last three outings, the Bullets seem to be in position to achieve a first this season -- three wins in four games. For that to happen, the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics would have to lose a third consecutive game for just the third time in eight years.

Part of the reason for that sustained level of excellence is all-NBA power forward Kevin McHale.

The 6-foot-11 veteran had foot surgery in the summer and didn't return to the lineup until this month. In five games, McHale has averaged 19.6 points and 7.6 rebounds. Both figures are below the norm for a man considered by many the toughest low post player to guard in the league.

That task tonight will fall to Catledge, who has posted his own impressive numbers of late.

In his last three games, Catledge has averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds, and without playing in the runaway fourth quarter of Saturday's 122-107 victory over New Jersey. After replacing King as a starter five games ago, Catledge has provided a much needed physical presence, despite being undersized for a power forward at 6 feet 8.

He more than held his own Saturday with the Nets' Buck Williams, one of the three players who traditionally have given him the most trouble. The others are 7-foot Kevin Willis of Atlanta and McHale.

"I haven't gotten many minutes against him {McHale} in the past. He's probably the best power forward in the league . . . " Catledge said after yesterday's practice at Bowie State College. "I don't know what kind of shape he's in now, but chances are I'll have to drive to the basket, cause him some problems like that. I'll try to get some easy fast-break baskets and not just shoot over him."

Players like McHale are extremely rare, as the Bullets found out during the preseason, when it seemed the organization tried to reach out and touch every other team in the league for a rebounder.

When none surfaced, it almost seemed Catledge gained the job by default. But King's presence took away from Catledge on offense. Struggling to find exactly where he fit in, the third-year pro averaged 8.6 points and four rebounds in the season's initial three games.

Then, in a Nov. 10 game at Milwaukee, Catledge aggravated the back and neck injuries he had received back home in Mississippi. He would miss seven games.

"After I recovered from the accident I didn't get treatments, I just started playing again," he said. "I shouldn't have done it like that, but now I'm feeling much better."

That's been reflected on court, and Coach Kevin Loughery said, "He's keeping the ball alive {on the backboards} and we've got to have that for easy baskets. We weren't getting that earlier."

Loughery added that he expects Catledge to average at least seven or eight rebounds "if he's getting the minutes. There's a possibility we may go more to {a combination of Moses Malone and Manute Bol} if we have to; we'll see how it goes."

"I feel comfortable and confident now," Catledge said. "Every game's working out good. I think I'm playing the way I felt I would. I just want to play my minutes hard and get the team fired up."

Jazz 116, SuperSonics 95: Thurl Bailey scored 29 points and John Stockton a career-high 26 as Utah won handily last night in Salt Lake City.

Dale Ellis led Seattle with 29.