A month ago, Willis Reed sat in his cubbyhole office next to the New York Knicks' locker room in Madison Square Garden and soaked in the heavy compliments that come after your team has destroyed an opponent, the Washington Bullets, by 26 points.

"I think I'm going to like coaching," said Reed after his second game as an NBA coach. "On nights like this, it doesn't seem to be as hard as I thought."

Willis Reed thought about that statement yesterday, on the eve of tonight's rematch with the Bullets in Capital Centre (8 p.m., WTOP-1500), and then laughed.

"I hadn't lost two games in a row then," he said. "That's when I started wondering what I was doing in this business. You think about that as a coach. One day you feel you are great, and the next you wonder what basketball is all bout."

Thanks to an 8-5 start, with the Knicks tied with the Philadelphia 76ers atop the Atlantic Division, Reed hasn't had to question his understanding of the game that often. Actually, he said, things have functioned as smoothly as could be expected.

"I can't even say that I've made a coaching mistake during a game that has costs us a win," he said. "And that was an era that concerned me before the season began."

Others were more concerned before the season about Reed's philosophical approach to his new job.With no coaching experience, he set out to change the Knicks from high-paid donnas who played as if they should be introduced to each other during games. He wanted cohesive, unselfish athletes, and he was going to reach that goal by preaching to togetherness, teamwork and the glories of the fast break.

Translated into Xs and Os, that meant the Knicks' superstar would receive less playing time, would be required to play defense and pass the ball and would not complain if they sat on the bench while some cocky rookie stole their glory.

If Reed was not one of New York City's residents sports heroes and the epitome of the American Dream (self-described country boy who made it to the top without losing his honesty, integrity or humility), he probably wouldn't have been able to pull it off.

But what Knick, even if his name is Earl Monroe or Bob MacAdoo, was going to challenge the Big Apple's Mr. Basketball?

"Besides," said Tom McMillen, who studied Reed's coaching techniques before being traded to Atlanta this week, "Willis is intimidating enough to make you listen. He doesn't have to yell. He just has to look at you."

Reed's Knicks are different from the teams he led to two NBA titles. These Knicks like to run they substitute freely and they don't hesitate to use rookies or start different combinations from game to game.

Only three times this season has any Knick played more than 40 minutes in a game. It isn't unusual for Reed to pull a starter a few minutes into the first quarter or use all three of his talented rookies - Ray William, Glen Gondrezick and Toby Knight - at the same time.

"I'm sure some of the players aren't happy with their lack of minutes," said Reed. "But I've got other players who can play too. I don't want anyone sitting around taking up space or being just a practice player.

"I've sat down with all of them and we've talked about what I want. That's all part of my philosophy. The better a player understands what you are trying to do the better he should be able to play."

Not everything was worked out as planned. An injury slowed Williams' pre-season training and now Monroe had leg problems and won't play tonight. And the Knicks aren't running nearly as consistently as Reed wants.

But his boss, general manager, Eddie Donovan, can see the Knicks gradually projecting Reed's personality and demands."

"He coaches like he played," said Donovan, who hired Reed to replace Red Holtzman and whose future with the club is tied so closely to the success of that move. "He is so strong and his beliefs are so well-founded.

"He has a definite philsophy. Defense is most important. Everyone is involved. Everyone has to be handled individually before they can be handled collectively. And someone has to steer the boat - and no one else.

"Sure, he's unhappy at times that things break down. But you have to remember this was a different team last year. It was slow and old. The rookies have made us quicker and younger, but you don't change overnight. Practice doesn't make you perfect, it makes you permant, and we had been practicing deliberate, control basketball for a long time."

If anyone doubted that Reed was the boss of the Knicks - even after he had personally scouted every NBA team and very potential draft choice last spring, and after he had manned out an offseason conditioning program for the squad - those those thoughts were put to rest shortly before the season began when Walt Frazier was sent with his two Rolls Royces to Cleveland.

If Reed was the heart of the old championship Knicks, Frazier was the brains. But he was coming off two dismal years and his cool, pick-yourspots game was not suited for the quicker tempo Reed wanted. He was also 32 years old and taking up playing time at guard that Williams needed.

Because Reed deemed Fraizer's exodus necessary, the move did not start the hail storm of controversy it could have under different circumstances. No Knick, not even Frazier, has been bigger than Reed since that May night in 1970 when he helped beat Los Angeles in the final game of the NBA playoffs, despite knee and hip injuries that should have kept him on the sidelines.

If Wills thought this wall give us a better team, decided the New York fan, then he must be right. He wouldn't trade a former teammate for any other reason.

But Reed isn't relying on his playing reputation to make him a successful coach. Donovan says he has never seen "any coach better prepared for practices and games than Willis. He told me at first he wanted a year to get ready for the job. When he found out that was impossible, he crammed a year's work into a few months."

Except when he is deer hunting or walking the woods on off days at his lidge in upstate New York, Reed is immersed in his job, making meticulous notes and mapping out his day so he won't waste a precious minute.

"I've played basketball since I was 13," he said. "I don't really know much about anything else. When I had to retire (in 1974), Eddie talked to me about coaching and I said no way, I couldn't see myself doing it.

"But I watched a lot of games when I was gone. There was something missing from my life. I felt I wanted to get involved again."

He couln't have come back at a better time. The Knicks' downfall from their championship days had been so dramatic, despite the addition of Spencer Haywood, MacAdoo and Jim McMillian, that something radical had to be done by management or the empty seats at Madison Square Garden surely would have multiplied.

"Replacing Red with Willis was dramatic," said McMillen. "Red was always the same, very low key. Whether he won or lost, it was always the same: scotch and water and the same color suit.

"Willis is so intense. He works so very hard. And he knows the intricacies of the game as only a player knows them. I mean, he knows what he's talking about when he shows you how to bump Jabbar out of the way."

Reed has changed, at least outwardly, from his playing days. The boyish face that once sat above that powerful body has been replaced by a more mature look: mustache, longer sideburns, tinted glasses.

But he is still the orderly man who will religiously request the same food at the same restaurant and eat it for same table. And he is the same man who has always stressed discipline, responsibility, honesty and loyalty and expects the same from his players.