The Washington Bullets, seemingly comfortably ahead well into the second half, went into cruise control and ultimately lost, 106-102, to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night at Capital Centre.

Guard Mark Price banked in the winning basket, the last of his team-high 22 points.

Apparently, the Cavaliers hadn't received word of the recent upswing in the Bullets' play. The visitors found out soon enough, though, as the Bullets took a 14-point first-half lead and built a 12-point margin in the third period.

Even after the Cavaliers rallied into an 89-85 lead, the Bullets regrouped and held a 101-97 lead with little more than a minute left.

The Cavaliers, fielding one of the youngest teams in the NBA, won only six road games last season and three of their previous 11 this season. No matter. With eight seconds to play, second-year pro Price took an inbounds pass, drove into the lane and lofted a bank shot that went in at :02, breaking a 102-102 tie.

The Bullets, out of timeouts, failed to get a shot off. Center Moses Malone's full-court heave to Bernard King was too long, the forward unable to control the ball before going out of bounds. With a second to play, Cleveland guard Dell Curry hit two free throws, and once again Washington (8-15) was denied its first three-game winning streak of the season. Cleveland is 11-12.

"I'm disappointed in the outcome," said Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery. "We played well overall. We moved the ball, we were aggressive, but we just didn't score in the crucial times."

Guard Jeff Malone led Washington with 27 points. Moses Malone supplied 22 points and 15 rebounds; Terry Catledge 17 points and nine rebounds; Frank Johnson nine assists. But the impressive numbers didn't deter the Cavaliers, whose Curry and rookie guard Kevin Johnson came on in relief to back Price with a combined 28 points.

The Bullets bench included guard Steve Colter, formerly of Portland and Philadelphia, newly signed as Darrell Walker went on the injured list. Colter did not play.

Meanwhile, "Our bench brought us back tonight," said Cleveland Coach Lenny Wilkens. "They really played great. Our kids play hard on the road and never give up. These guys really stay after people."

In fact, in the closing minutes, the Cavaliers more resembled a composed veteran squad than did Washington. Perhaps the Bullets' biggest foibles were a pair of fouls that stopped the clock and let the Cavaliers score from the free-throw line.

The first was on Catledge with 58 seconds to play and Washington up, 101-97. John (Hot Rod) Williams hit one of two, then, after a missed shot by King, Frank Johnson fouled Price, who made two to close to 101-100.

The call by referee Jack Nies, a reach-in foul in traffic, is the sort rarely made in the final minutes of an NBA game. It surely didn't appear as obvious as what followed Price's foul shots. Scrambling to beat a press and find an open man, Moses Malone tried an entry pass to King, who was floored by Craig Ehlo.

This was directly in front of Nies, but he didn't whistle and, as play continued, Ehlo passed to Tyrone Corbin for a dunk and a 102-101 Cleveland advantage with :13 left.

"I thought they'd call it. Every time we touched them down the stretch they called a foul on us," said Jeff Malone. "I know he got bumped."

Ehlo differed.

"If there was any foul, it would've been called on him. I was there before the ball was," the 6-foot-7 Ehlo said. "It probably was a judgment call that could've gone either way, but the refs didn't call anything."

On the Bullets' next possession, Nies almost seemed to make up for the previous call by whistling Corbin for a foul, but King made only the second of two free throws. It appeared the Bullets were heading for their third overtime in the last five games, until Price spoiled that.

"I was supposed to get the ball at the top of the key for a jumper or pass off to Dell if I got picked up, but Frank Johnson made a good play and got inside the pick," Price said. "I went inside, where I knew Moses had to pick me up, then once I got into the lane I knew I'd be able to loft a shot up."

Too bad for the Bullets.

"It would've meant a lot for us to win this game," said Jeff Malone. "To let a young team come in here and beat us is tough. We'll just have to try and come back in the next one."

In other NBA games: The Celtics beat the 76ers, 118-115, as Larry Bird scored 31 points, including a three-point basket with 1:16 left that gave Boston the lead for good in Philadelphia. The 76ers' Charles Barkley scored 40 . . . In Chicago, Dallas' Mark Aguirre scored 32 points in the Mavericks' 111-100 victory over the Bulls . . . In Houston, Sleepy Floyd scored 27 points and Allen Leavell 26 as the Rockets beat Atlanta, 122-103, to end a four-game losing streak with their first victory since the big trade with Golden State . . . The Bucks handled the New York Knicks, 122-105, in Milwaukee as John Lucas scored 25 points and Randy Breuer 24 . . . In Denver, Alex English scored 26 points as the Nuggets, now 10-1 at home, routed Phoenix, 119-104 . . . Mike McGee's 30 points included five three-point shots in the Kings' 120-96 victory over the Spurs in Sacramento . . . The Trail Blazers led by 50 in Portland, then settled for beating Golden State only 136-91..