Maybe it was the defense, or perhaps the pressure of two teams competing for a precious playoff berth.

Maybe the Washington Bullets have decided that they're good enough to play down to the level of competition.

Whatever the reason, it took forward Bernard King's fourth period wake-up call to lead the team to its eighth straight home victory, a 104-90 decision over the New York Knicks at Capital Centre.

King scored the first eight points of the fourth period. He finished with a season-high 33 points. Fifteen of them came in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter and provided the only electricity in a largely desolate contest played before 8,059.

Moses Malone's game has never depended on electricity, but rather something more along the lines of a constantly pounding sledgehammer.

In that sense, the all-star center was very much in his element last night, finishing the game with 30 points and 17 rebounds, the first figure helping to push the 12-year veteran into 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. He has scored 20,904 points in his career.

Malone scored 30 points for Washington and his layup at 4:31 of the first. He moved past Bob Pettit, who had 20,881 in 11 season. Malone trails ninth-place Walt Bellamy by 37 points. Including his two seasons in the ABA, Malone has 23,075 points, good for 13th place on the combined NBA-ABA scoring list. Elgin Baylor is 12th with 23,149 points.

Now 17-22 this season and 9-3 under Coach Wes Unseld, the Bullets played much of the game as if their recent home court excellence would end with a loud thud. Such is the nature of games between the two Atlantic Division teams.

On Nov. 13, the first time they met here, the Bullets won, 108-101, but not before setting a league record by making 60 of 69 free throws.

Another similarity was the sight of Knicks' Coach Rick Pitino getting ejected from the game. In the teams' first meeting, the former Providence coach received two technical fouls before the end of the first half. Tonight, he lasted until 1:46 remained in the game.

"This place is death for me," he said, laughing later. "First it was against Georgetown and now the Bullets."

For all intents and purposes, the game was over by the time he departed the playing floor.

That was largely due to King, who spent five seasons with the Knicks. He was judged as being unfit to be a Knick before the start of the season, a decision which made him a free agent and led him to sign with the Bullets.

The score was tied at 72 entering the fourth quarter, but he quickly changed that, first with a shot slung nearly from the hip after driving into the lane. Then he made his trademark move, a slashing drive to the basket from out on the left wing.

The Knicks quickly took a timeout but when play resumed King followed those first two baskets with a jumper and two free throws. It wasn't New York but rather Frank Johnson that stopped King's run with a jumper of his own. But with 8:57 to play, King made another jumper and, 27 second after that, one of two free throws.

"It was an exciting fourth quarter for us," he said. "I was able to isolate out on the wing, which is how I like to operate. There's no vendetta with playing against New York. I always like to do it because I'm from New York, but there's no vendetta."

After that, Unseld continued to show that he's not a slave to conventionality. Despite King's success, with just under five minutes to play, the coach took him out and went with a lineup featuring Moses Malone and Manute Bol. In Wednesday night's 106-100 loss to the Boston Celtics, Unseld kept Malone, his star center, on the bench for the last five minutes of play.

King defended last night's move by Unseld. "I thought it was a good move to make," he said. "At that point they were in the penalty and Moses was fresh."

Perhaps Unseld was just trying to add some juice to a game that was dominated by long stretches of lethargic play.

"We're playing against a team that, because of their traps and presses, makes you do things that you don't want to do," said Unseld. "They take you out of your offense and you can't run the plays you want to run."

Neither team could generate much of anything in the opening three periods last night. The visitors' gadget defenses befuddled Washington and exasperated Unseld, who spent much of the first half looking for a combination that clicked. As usual, Steve Colter started the game at point guard but was pulled less than two minutes into the first quarter. Tyrone Bogues, who was averaging 23 minutes per game, played 20 in the first half alone and finished with 36.

The Knicks (14-27), who were led by rookie guard Mark Jackson's 18 points and 17 assists, were no prize either.

As a result, the Bullets were able to take a 51-49 advantage into the locker room at halftime. If anyone thought that things would change after the intermission, they were sadly mistaken.

King opened the second half with a turnover, which former Georgetown University star Patrick Ewing converted into two foul shots.

Immediately after those shots, there were three fouls called without a single shot being taken. The last was against the Knicks and, on their subsequent possession, it took Moses Malone four shots and three offensive rebounds finally to get the home team on the scoreboard.