NEW YORK, FEB. 2 -- For close to the full 48 minutes tonight at Madison Square Garden, the Washington Bullets under the NBA coach of the month, Wes Unseld, and the New York Knicks under first-year coach Rick Pitino engaged in a series of thrusts and parries. There were traps and presses and post-ups, each necessitating reactions and adjustments.

Pitino's team won, 110-106.

Each man must have done his job well, for there were 38 ties and lead changes just in the first three quarters. From the final 7:57 of the second quarter until game's end -- a span of almost 32 minutes -- neither team led by more than six points.

The inherent pressure made for the sort of environment that means trouble for the Bullets, particularly on the road. And, sure enough, while they avoided many of the mental and physical lapses to which they've fallen prey to in such situations, they nevertheless couldn't avoid defeat.

The loss dropped the Bullets' record to 17-24 and, with the 128-126 failure at Cleveland on Saturday, marked the first consecutive Washington defeats since Unseld was named coach on Jan. 3 (the league honored him today for his 9-4 January). The Knicks improved their record to 15-28, but couldn't be sure of it until a pair of free throws by rookie guard Mark Jackson with five seconds left in the game.

The shots were set up five seconds earlier. With the Knicks ahead, 105-103, New York forward Sidney Green went to the line for a pair of free throws. He made the first, missed the second, and the long rebound was retrieved by teammate Gerald Wilkins, who quickly passed off to Jackson.

Wilkins led all scorers with a season-high 29 points. Patrick Ewing lent him 22-point support and Jackson finished with 21. The Bullets were led by Bernard King's 28 points. Jeff Malone had 24 and Terry Catledge 18. Washington will have an opportunity to extend its home winning streak to nine games on Wednesday night against the Cavaliers at Capital Centre.

The exciting finish was fitting for a game that turned the dreary, rainy night outside into a special occasion. There were 14,269 customers in Madison Square Garden, with basketball luminaries Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry and Don Nelson, and the game was televised nationally by WTBS. However, for the Bullets, the festive air and the nip-and-tuck nature of the game didn't make up for just another negative conclusion.

"A loss is a loss," said rookie guard Tyrone Bogues. "We threw the game in Cleveland away -- that never should have happened. Tonight we played hard and the Knicks came out tough. It's tough to beat teams on the road. Tonight we just fell short in the final minute."

Washington's last lead was at 95-94, on a jumper by Jeff Malone with 5:27 remaining. From there the Knicks scored five straight points, four by Ewing, to take a 99-95 advantage with 3:56 left.

The teams then scored on five consecutive possessions, leaving New York on top, 103-101, with 1:42 to play. Twelve seconds later, Jackson was called for an offensive foul but Washington failed to capitalize. The Bullets also lost an opportunity with 53 seconds left, when King couldn't handle an errant pass from John Williams and lost the ball on a back-court violation.

Williams did score on a power move over Ewing with 13 seconds remaining to bring the Bullets within 105-103. The forward was fouled on the play but missed the attempt at the three-point play, setting up the final seconds.

Unseld appeared more perplexed at the final seconds of the first half. Trailing, 51-49, Washington seemed to tie the game on a dunk by Moses Malone, but referees Bill Saar and Dan Crawford disallowed the goal, sending the coach into a rage.

"I asked the scorekeeper and the timekeeper and they both said the basket was good," Unseld said. "Saar said it was inconceivable that we could get the basket with two seconds left, but I was trying to get him to see that we'd gotten the ball before that."

That was just one of the smaller skirmishes fought throughout the game. The Knicks entered determined to penalize the Bullets' extensive use of Bogues by posting the 6-foot-3 Jackson down low. The ploy worked to some extent but so did the Bullets' trap, with their 5-3 rookie spearheading the pressure.

In the third period, the Knicks had some success using 7-footers Ewing and Bill Cartwright together. Later in the game, Pitino had Green guard Moses Malone and moved Ewing out to power forward.

"The NBA is all a game of matchups," said Pitino. "Sidney on Moses was a good one for us tonight because it allowed Patrick to roam around the basket and become another line of defense."

Pistons 99, Bucks 97:

Bill Laimbeer scored only two points in Milwaukee, but they came on a base-line jumper with 19 seconds left that won the game for Detroit.

After rookie free agent Ralph Lewis' basket with 48 seconds remaining gave the Pistons a 96-94 lead, Paul Pressey tied the game with a basket at the :35 mark.

After Laimbeer's basket, Isiah Thomas stole the ball and Adrian Dantley made a free throw with three seconds remaining to give Detroit a 99-96 lead.

Rockets 109, Suns 99:

In Houston, Joe Barry Carroll's 21 points included seven in a row during a late fourth-quarter surge that extended Phoenix's losing streak to nine games.

Akeem Olajuwon led the Rockets with 26 points, including 16 in the first quarter, and 15 rebounds. Carroll had 12 rebounds.

Trail Blazers 121, Hawks 118:

In Portland, Ore., Clyde Drexler scored 32 points and Kiki Vandeweghe, playing for the first time since Dec. 29, had 25 as Atlanta lost its fourth straight.

Spurs 118, Nets 106:

Walter Berry's 28 points led the victory in San Antonio. Alvin Robertson and Greg Anderson each had 20.

Lakers 110, Bulls 101:

In Inglewood, Calif., Magic Johnson scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers won despite 39 points by Michael Jordan.

They had an 83-63 lead in the third period before the Bulls got as close as 101-97 with 2:36 to play.