RICHFIELD, OHIO, FEB. 10 -- By outscoring the Washington Bullets, 17-6, in the last four minutes of play, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 118-102 decision tonight at the Coliseum.

John (Hot Rod) Williams led the winners (24-23) with 23 points, but his scoring didn't seem nearly as important as the contributions made by rookie guard Kevin Johnson.

Johnson, the team's first-round draft choice from California, scored 13 points in the game, 11 in the last period. He added a steal in the late going.

The effort helped negate a season-high 34 points by Bullets guard Jeff Malone, 31 points from Bernard King and a stellar second-half performance by John Williams, who played center for most of the second half, getting six of his eight rebounds then.

"I didn't think we played well during the whole game," said Coach Wes Unseld, whose Bullets fell to 18-26. "We had our spots, but it was one of those games when it just looked like we didn't have it."

In the first half, that certainly might have applied to the Bullets' Williams and Cleveland's Johnson. The former had two points and two rebounds before intermission. The latter had but a single basket. Yet by game's end, each would come to typify the game.

As good as King and Jeff Malone were throughout the game, it still didn't prevent the visitors from falling behind by 18 points late in the second quarter. One night after getting 12 rebounds and blocking five shots in replacing Moses Malone, out with a chipped bone in his left wrist, Manute Bol played an ineffective 22 minutes, going scoreless with two rebounds and two blocks.

However, Washington whittled the deficit to 61-54 at halftime and trailed by 75-66 with 7:39 to play in the third period when Williams replaced Bol. In deference to the Cavaliers' size advantage, the Bullets double-teamed and rotated their defense whenever the ball entered the low post.

The strategy met with great success. Williams controlled the defensive boards and Malone (12 points) and King (10 points) shot Washington into an 83-81 advantage with 2:40 to play in the period.

It was obvious, though, that at some point the duo would have to be rested. The question was when, for how long and what would happen.

With 1:27 left, King and Malone exited, with the visitors still clinging to their two-point lead. The Bullets were unable to score for the rest of the quarter, and the Cavaliers took an 85-83 lead.

"Somewhere you know that you have to give them a rest if you're going to be able to come back at all in the fourth quarter," Unseld said. "You watch the flow of the game and if the guys that are out there are doing it you stay with them as long as you can."

The Bullets were down by 95-89 with 7:54 left, when King and Malone returned. King made a free throw and Malone a layup on a pretty feed from King to help cut the deficit to 97-94 with 5:36 remaining.

On the other sideline, however, Cleveland Coach Lenny Wilkens was making some adjustments of his own. With star guard Ron Harper suffering through a four for 14 night from the floor and veteran forward Phil Hubbard scoring just eight points, the Cavaliers went to Johnson and journeyman forward Tyrone Corbin.

Corbin scored five of his 11 points in the decisive last four minutes, while Johnson simply took over the game. The play that ended with King feeding Jeff Malone for a layup began with Johnson missing a jumper. But on the Cavaliers' next possession, he made a shot from an almost identical spot on the court.

"Before the all-star break I don't think I would have done that," he said. "I used the time off to get refocused. I was looking at films and I saw that other rookies like Kenny Smith {of Sacramento} and Mark Jackson {New York} were doing some of the same things they did in college.

"I wasn't. I got cautious and got away from some things, and that's not what got me here."

Twenty seconds after his jump shot, he broke a Bullets trap in the back court and went the length of the floor for a layup that put Cleveland ahead by 101-94.

The previous three meetings between the two teams had been decided by a total of seven points. This defeat, the third at the hands of the Cavaliers in the last 12 days, also cost the Bullets another opportunity to jump back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Washington trails Philadephia by two games and Cleveland by 4 1/2 in the chase for the eighth and last postseason berth.