BOSTON, JAN. 8 -- The Washington Bullets discovered playoff intensity last night at Boston Garden, a heady sensation that carried the team through the first three-plus quarters of a toe-to-toe slugfest with the Celtics. In the final minutes, however, Boston, which has represented the Eastern Conference in the last four NBA finals, emerged with a TKO, taking a 125-109 decision.

For Washington, now 9-20 on the season and 1-1 under new coach Wes Unseld, the evening's tone may have been set with a timeout taken just 2:25 into the contest. Trailing, 10-6, and watching the opposition drive freely to the basket, Unseld told his players in no uncertain terms that if they couldn't take the ball from the Boston players when they entered the lane, they had better knock someone down.

From there, the visitors more than held their own, taking a nine-point lead with 7:31 remaining in the third quarter. However, mental pressure is something that Washington has had little opportunity to deal with this season, and, with the noise from a sellout crowd of 14,890 raining down upon them, the Bullets faltered.

The team lost most of its advantage by the end of the period, turning the ball over four times in the final 2:13. Although they held a 94-92 lead entering the final 12 minutes, it wasn't enough. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale combined for 16 points in the final period and guard Danny Ainge added another nine to lead the team to its 21st victory in 30 games.

Bird finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds and four steals; McHale added 32 points. Jeff Malone led Washington with 31 and Moses Malone had 24.

"We worked hard, but we've got to get more patience," said Moses Malone. "We got wild with a lot of stuff in the fourth quarter; if we were more patient, we might have won a ballgame."

Spreading the ball around the court and extending Boston's defense, the Bullets were able to send the Celtics to the ropes during the third quarter. That followed an impressive second period in which the visitors outscored Boston, 43-28, by making 15 of 22 shots from the field.

Late in the third quarter, though, Unseld rested most of his starters -- with almost disastrous results. A fast-break layup by John Williams put the Bullets ahead, 88-82, with 2:52 remaining, but the Celtics scored immediately after three of four Washington turnovers to tie the game at 92. It took two free throws by Jeff Malone with four seconds left to give the Bullets their two-point lead.

"We had to take some guys out for a break," Unseld said. "We were hoping to maintain our lead, but it didn't work out."

The same happened to the Celtics in the second quarter. Boston Coach K.C. Jones has come under fire through the years for overworking his starters. Tonight, he put five reserves in the game simultaneously and watched as the Bullets caught fire, taking control of the game.

"We didn't want to go down like that, but K.C. had to rest us," Bird said. "I like to see the substitutes go in, but not all at the same time -- they don't always do so well when they're in together."

Of course, the Celtics have long known that it's easy to ride atop Bird's shoulders -- just as opponents have found out throughout his stellar career how hard it is to get around his hips when trying to defend the forward from backing down into the lane area for short jumpers or spinning layups.

For Washington, that task is made increasingly more difficult because of its relatively undersized forwards.

"Our guys are 6 feet 6," Unseld said. "It's tough for us to go against guys who are 7-0 and 6-10 who can play."

Their flurry at the end of third quarter sent the crowd -- the 336th straight sellout here -- into a frenzy. It peaked when another streak continued -- a three-point field goal by Ainge marked the 14th consecutive game he's made a long-distance jumper. This one came with 8:37 remaining and tied the game at 98. When he followed up that basket with another jumper 34 seconds later, it gave Boston the lead for good.

"We had a problem executing late in the third and in the fourth quarter," said Jeff Malone. "The point guards were trying to call the plays, but the big men couldn't hear them and we wound up out of position. We'd try to relay the calls, but then the shot clock would be running down and we couldn't get the shots that we wanted."

In the final period the Bullets hit just seven of 23 attempts -- 30 percent.

The Bullets didn't do themselves any favors by missing their first five shots from the field. Fortunately for the visitors, the Celtics were only able to move ahead, 6-0, on baskets from Bird and Robert Parish and two free throws from Dennis Johnson.

With 7:35 remaining in the first period, the Bullets were trailing, 12-6. Unseld used a timeout to assail his team on its lack of aggressive defense. Starting point guard Tyrone Bogues picked up two early fouls and was replaced by Steve Colter, and Jeff Malone, ineffective on offense, was replaced by Frank Johnson.