Charles Oakley made a mistake. The Knicks forward was talking about getting his team out of a month-long funk, but he erred in saying there "would be bodies flying" when New York played the Boston Celtics. You say that when the expansions come to town. Or the Nets, maybe.

"Our guys really took offense to that," Boston assistant Jon Jennings said.

And they went into Madison Square Garden Tuesday and, without Larry Bird, pummeled New York. The next night, they beat Milwaukee at home. They beat just about everybody these days, these new-look and old-guard Celtics. At 29-5 after last night's victory over the Clippers, they have the best record in the league. Their renaissance is 33 games old, and they know better than to get too excited in December.

Bird's back spasms will also keep him out of tonight's sold-out affair at Capital Centre with the Washington Bullets. It's the second benchmark game for the Bullets in five days. They could have beaten the Bucks in Milwaukee; now they play another hot team.

"Our guys are really concentrating on shutting down people," Boston Coach Chris Ford said. "If it's one guy, it makes the job a little easier. We have a lot of people contributing, and it's hard to concentrate on any one guy."

To beat Boston, the Bullets need to get their one guy, Bernard King, going early. The Celtics have held him to an average of just 16.5 points in two games this season, both Boston victories. But King is scoring better than any 34-year-old going, averaging 38 points his last six games.

"He's scoring so much, I don't even keep track," Bullets guard Darrell Walker said. "This offense gives him so much freedom. His jump shot has improved so much the last two to three years. He's just tough to guard. The only players that may give him problems are players his size, with very good quickness."

Somebody like Boston's Reggie Lewis. Or a frontcourt that's still oak tall and capable of shutting down the middle. Dee Brown, the rookie from Jacksonville, Fla., and Brian Shaw, returning from a year in Italy, clog the passing lanes and gamble for steals just as Bird did. The Celtics are holding the opposition to a league-low .441 field goal percentage and have won 21 games by 10 or more points.

Without Bird, Boston isn't missing a beat. Kevin McHale was inserted in the starting lineup, and he scored 30 against the Bucks. Two years ago, without Bird, they imploded and barely made the playoffs.

Teams had a simple edict: Run 'em for three quarters and they'll die in the fourth, even in the Boston Garden. Now, young legs like guards Brown and Shaw and Lewis and Kevin Gamble just love the transition game. And the old guard is more than willing to run up the floor for a trip or two.

"I think they're really having fun now," Milwaukee assistant Frank Hamblen said, "getting the ball up the floor. In the fastbreak it's not how fast you get the ball up the floor; it's when you advance it, and do you beat the defense to spots on the floor?

"Now if you get in a running contest on the road against the Celtics, they're going to beat you at that game. The game may be over in the third quarter."

The Celtics have six players who average double figures in scoring. None is scoring 20 points a game. That's Detroit-like (or, if you go back to the originators of the form, Boston-like) balance. None of their key players shoots worse than .475 from the floor, and that's Bird. So the Celtics also lead the league in shooting at .534.

"I don't know where the scouting reports came from that said Dee Brown couldn't hit the jump shot," said Brown, himself shooting 53 percent.

"I can hit it as good as anyone else. If they lay off me and double Kevin {McHale} inside, I'm going to hit it."

Gamble, always underrated since he's been with Boston, has provided the Celtics with enough offense (13.8 points) to earn his keep. And he rarely misses, shooting better than 60 percent from the field, second-best in the league.

More importantly, he's allowed Bird to stay down low defensively if he wants. Bird no longer has to come out and guard the killer small forwards in the league and can utilize his underrated rebounding skills.

He recently told the Dallas Morning News: "The past 11 years this team has depended on our front line for everything it's done. We might not be as good as we once were, but we're still the best three in the league.

"The thing that we try to do is keep our heads up, keep plowing away. We have the talent here to go a long way. We don't know if we're good enough to win a championship yet, but we definitely feel if we keep playing hard, we're going to open some eyes."