LANDOVER -- In the NBA, most close games are decided by which team does a better job of executing its half-court offense.
In the fourth quarter last night, the Boston Celtics, with newly acquired point guard Sherman Douglas running the show, ran their offense to perfection. Conversely, the Washington Bullets struggled to even get a shot off in being held to 14 points.
It all added up to a sixth straight loss for the Bullets, 98-87, before a Capital Centre sellout crowd of 18,756, most of whom were rooting for the Celtics.
Washington (14-27), quickly disappearing from the playoff race, is 6-15 at home.
The reasons for this latest defeat were no mystery to coach Wes Unseld or his players. Collapsing in the final quarter has been a common occurrence this season when the team's motion offense usually comes to a screeching halt.
"In the last quarter we had no movement, no execution at all," said center Pervis Ellison, who had 18 points, but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter. "We need to crash the boards and get some easy layups."
"We've got no killer instinct," added forward Harvey Grant, the Bullets' scoring leader with 19 points, but only two in the last seven minutes when the Celtics pulled away from an 81-80 lead. "We were up 13 [63-50] early in the third quarter, and we just let them take it away. Some guys are letting up and not doing their job."
Unseld was more succinct. "We're just not a half-court team. Without Bernard King [out for the season], we don't have a go-to guy when we need a big basket. If we don't rebound and get easy baskets in transition, we're in for a long night."
The Celtics (27-16), however, always seem to find ways to compensate for missing players. Even minus perennial All-Star forwards Larry Bird (back) and Kevin McHale (torn calf) and point guard Dee Brown (knee), they are challenging the New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead.
"This was nothing new," said Celtics coach Chris Ford. "Other guys have consistently stepped up for us. Tonight, we got great defense and rebounding from Ed Pinckney [17 points, 11 rebounds], another solid effort from Reggie Lewis [20 points], and, of course, a tremendous lift offensively from Douglas in the fourth quarter."
Things can only get better for the Celtics, who expect to welcome back Bird and Brown after the All-Star break. But the Bullets, who play the first-place Knicks in New York tonight, must make the best of what they have.
NOTES: Bullets G A.J. English was assessed a $3,000 fine by NBA operations chief Rod Thorn yesterday for throwing an elbow at Phoenix Suns G Jeff Hornacek in the fourth quarter at the Capital Centre on Saturday night. English was ejected.