Now that they seem to have become competitive on a nightly basis, the next task for the Washington Bullets will be to learn how to win close games consistently.

One got away in Tuesday night's 106-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Displaying a style reminiscent of a month ago, when they regularly struggled to find the basket, the Bullets scored 20 points in the final period, hitting a subpar 40 percent from the field in tossing away what was at one stage of the third quarter a 12-point lead.

Most of the night had unfolded as a continuation of the Bullets' upsurge, in which they had gone 6-6 following a 2-8 season's start. In the four games prior to Tuesday, the Bullets had hit 54 percent from the field, and, despite their lackluster fourth period, they still made 48 percent against Cleveland.

After passing for a season-high 37 assists in Saturday's 109-96 win over the Chicago Bulls, the Bullets came back with 29 assists against the Cavaliers, their season second-highest. In a rarity for this year's team, the starters actually outperformed the reserves on that score.

"We had some turnovers, but they were the ones you have to live with when you're trying to move the ball around," said Coach Kevin Loughery. "We had an opportunity to blow them out and we didn't do it because we missed a lot of easy, point-blank shots, but overall I wasn't disappointed in the way we played."

The club did receive negative news during yesterday's practice at Bowie State College, that Darrell Walker's sprained right ankle had to be placed in a cast following reexamination by team physicians. Loughery said the exam disclosed no injury other than previously determined, but Walker is still expected to be out about two weeks, the original estimate after he was hurt in the Bulls game.

Walker's roster replacement, guard Steve Colter, was signed only Tuesday morning and didn't play that night. That led to some interesting decision-making by both Loughery and Cleveland Coach Lenny Wilkens, the sort of game-within-a-game that mark every NBA contest.

Down to Frank Johnson and Tyrone Bogues at point guard, Loughery tried to buy some time in the first half by pairing Jeff Malone and John Williams in the back court. Already possessing a quick guard in Mark Price, Wilkens responded by going with another smaller, quicker player, reserve Kevin Johnson.

While not running an out-and-out trap, the pair applied pressure that helped Cleveland cut a 14-point deficit to four at halftime. In the third quarter, the Bullets starters picked the margin back up to 12 but then the Cavaliers got some outstanding play from reserves Dell Curry, Tyrone Corbin and Mark West.

"That was where we couldn't put it away," said Loughery. "The group that played so well for us against Chicago -- Muggsy {Bogues}, Mark Alarie, Bernard {King}, Moses {Malone} and John Williams -- didn't do as well this time out."

Now the chess game was in full swing. A switch by Loughery to a smaller lineup to match the Cavaliers' had little success, so he reinserted starting forward Charles Jones. Wilkens stayed with his three-guard offense of Price, Curry and Craig Ehlo, but Washington pushed ahead to a 93-88 lead with 6:49 left.

With just 1:11 remaining, the Bullets' lead was 101-97 after a jumper by Johnson, but that was the only Washington field goal in the last two minutes. Instead, there were three Bullets turnovers in the final minute, and fouls by Terry Catledge and Johnson.

At yesterday's practice, Loughery said he wouldn't do anything differently and expects to continue using a big lineup for part of Saturday's game at Milwaukee. After two days of practice for Colter, he added, "We may use him some, just as soon as he gets a feel for what we want to do."