The Washington Bullets' performance in the fourth quarter of last night's game against the Portland Trail Blazers was decidedly exciting and the sort that may entice many of the 6,338 in the stands to return to Capital Centre at some point. However, it wasn't enough to mask the earlier three quarters of the team's 117-112 defeat.

In the first two games of what is a three-game losing streak, the Bullets gave themselves a chance to win with strong early efforts. Last night they conceivably could have won but, had it happened, it would have been a miracle, or at least the type of gift that's usually associated with this time of year.

Now 8-17, the Bullets did little to help themselves in the early going. Falling behind by 16 points in the first three periods, the Bullets missed free throws and jump shots alike and rebounded and played defense as if their shoes were cemented to the floor.

Perhaps that's one reason, according to Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery, his squad gave up 42 fast break points and 19 offensive rebounds to the victors, who got 30 points from forward Jerome Kersey, 24 points from Clyde Drexler and 16 points and 14 assists from fellow guard Terry Porter. Washington was led by a season-high 32 points from Jeff Malone. Forward Bernard King had 28.

"They just got too many fast break points and second shots for us to win a basketball game," said Loughery.

Portland was ahead, 100-86, with just under nine minutes to play when the Bullets made the sort of play that any NBA team would be proud of. Saving the basketball from going out of bounds beneath the Bullets' basket, Moses Malone passed to Mark Alarie, who fed King, who passed to Jeff Malone, who shuttled a pass to Tyrone Bogues, who finished the play with a pass back to Alarie for a layup.

With visions of the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics dancing in their heads, the Bullets trapped and pressed enough to whittle their deficit to 112-108, after King's three-point field goal with 1:11 to play.

"At the end of the game we got too tentative against their trap," said Portland Coach Mike Schuler. "It hurt that we had all perimeter players in the game at that time."

Another factor might have been that his players were entirely certain that they already had won the game. They spent much of their time chuckling with each other. Drexler engaged fans at courtside, promising them a dunk shot.

That never happened, though. With 50 seconds to play, Portland reserve forward Richard Anderson made one of two free throws, making the score 113-108, but Alarie came back with a tip-in.

After the Trail Blazers' Caldwell Jones missed a layup, Moses Malone rebounded and was fouled by Kersey. His two free throws made the score 113-112 with 20 seconds left, but Kersey, too, made made two from the line.

The Bullets then used their last timeout, but their attempt at a game-tying three-point field goal went awry when Bogues' pass toward Jeff Malone was stolen by Porter, who went the length of the court to ice the game.

"We just keep digging holes for ourselves," Alarie said. "I can't think of a game that we didn't start sluggishly. The start of a game counts, too; the other teams are playing hard, but we can't get it going. It's a lazy habit that we have to get rid of."

In other games, the Spurs beat the Kings, 140-108, for their 10th straight home win; Dominique Wilkins' 33 points helped the Hawks beat the Cavaliers, 117-110; the Pistons beat the Pacers, 105-95; Eddie Johnson's 43 points -- 33 in the second half -- helped the Suns beat the Clippers, 121-102; the SuperSonics ended the Celtics' six-game winning streak, 111-105; the Rockets beat the Bucks, 102-93; and the Jazz beat the Warriors, 104-103.