On a night the Boston Celtics might have been ripe for the taking, the Washington Bullets weren't up to the task, turning in a somewhat lethargic effort in a 122-102 defeat.

Boston's shooting from the field -- 60 percent in the first half, 55 percent in the third period -- could indicate a hot hand. That was true to some extent, but it's easy to build confidence when many of your shots come from within three feet of the basket, which was where the Celtics got many of their first shots throughout the game.

One could have expected the Celtics (12-8) to come out firing. They came into Capital Centre with two consecutive losses, both at home, the first time that's happened since the final two games of the 1984-85 season. A third straight defeat overall would have marked just the third time that's happened in eight years, which, not so coincidentally, is the amount of time Larry Bird has played in the NBA.

"Larry Bird is Larry Bird, so we don't have to discuss it," said Bullets guard Darrell Walker after the 6-foot-9 all-NBA forward scored a game-high 27 points, connecting on 11 of 18 shots. Guard Danny Ainge added 20 points, making four three-point shots, and forward Kevin McHale had 17. Washington (6-14) was led by Moses Malone's 21 points and John Williams' 17.

"They {the Celtics} played great. It seemed like every time we missed a layup they hit a three-pointer," said Washington Coach Kevin Loughery. "I thought our intensity was pretty good, but we missed four of our first five shots and they were wide-open ones. Then McHale got rolling in the second period. He delivered every single time they went to him."

That hadn't been the case recently. Although it won it first six games of the season, Boston had lost five of its last six entering last night's game, played before 15,896. McHale, who had foot surgery over the summer, had appeared in only five games while trying to play his way into shape. Bird started the season on a torrid pace but was slowed and missed time with tendinitis in both ankles.

"You've got to come to play and we haven't done that night in and night out," Bird said. "Some teams think they can beat us, but we're ready to take on any challenge."

That was most evident on the backboards, where Boston held a 47-30 advantage, including 21 offensive rebounds. The Celtics' front line of Bird, 7-0 Robert Parish and 6-10 McHale towered over their Washington counterparts: 6-9 Charles Jones, 6-8 Terry Catledge and 6-10 Moses Malone. One would think that in response, Washington would battle harder. Instead, in the early going the Bullets played as if content to rest on the laurels of two victories in their previous three games.

The Bullets fell behind by 14 points at halftime and 22 at 88-66 with 4:13 to play in the third quarter. It was then that they made their only sustained run.

The rally featured a couple of uncommon traits: Moses Malone and Manute Bol together in a twin tower alignment and 6-9 Williams playing guard for the first time this season. The trio combined for 10 straight points to close to 88-76 late in the quarter. Perhaps more importantly, they, along with Walker and Bernard King, displayed more aggressiveness than at any other time in the game.

"They were taking advantage of our smaller guards," said Loughery. "We thought that we'd go big on them and start switching off."

In response, the Celtics shrugged collectively and made a switch of their own, rotating the basketball out to the perimeter. The first time, the ball went to Ainge, who popped in a three-point field goal. On their next possession, his back-court partner, Dennis Johnson, connected for another three.

For all their hard work, the Bullets still trailed by 18 after that basket and by 96-81 entering the fourth quarter. It was 98-83 less than three minutes into the period, then Ainge knocked down another pair of three-point baskets.

"I had missed a few shots but I didn't think that I was struggling," said Ainge, who was only three for nine from the field at halftime. "I just tried to put it out of my mind, keep playing and take the shots that were there. I wouldn't stop shooting because I had missed some shots. When you're missing, you just think that the next one is going to go in."

Considering that the alternative was getting beat in the low post by a Bird, Parish or McHale, Washington guard Frank Johnson still contended that "we'd love for {Ainge} to take those shots again; they rotate the ball so well. We'd double-team down low but they did a good job moving it, and it put us in a scramble defense. They got some extra shots but they're good -- that's why they've been in the finals so much."