Referee Richie Powers, whose haughty personality and quick use of technical fouls have made him the most unpopular NBA official among players and coaches, decided Wednesday night that he was going to allow the use of zone defenses in a game between Atlanta and New Jersey.

"It's a stone-age rule," Powers and after explaining why he instructed both clubs to play zone without fear of penalty. For his actions, Powers was fined $2,500 and suspended three games without pay by MBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien.

Some players and coaches are just as tired of dealing with the confusion over zone defenses as Powers obviously was. It is generally conceded that every team in the NBA, except perhaps Philadelphia and New York, play some form of a zone during most games. And Atlanta and New Jersey, the clubs Powers singled out for his experiment, use zones as their No. 1 defense. Some officials are quick to call technical fouls on teams using the zone, and others are not.

The NBA rule book says that "a zone defense is not permitted in NBA games, although "any type of pressing defense is legal." And the rules say that "once an offensive team has advanced the ball into its front court, a defensive player may not station himself in the 16-foot key area longer than three seconds, if it is apparent he is making no effort to play an opponent who is six to eight feet away."

According to Bullet Coach Dick Motta, the rule's reference to guarding an opponent "who is within six to eight feet" is the major hangup with the rule.

"It's so hard to judge that distance the way everyone is moving," he said. "You could play an out-and-out zone and stay within the rules and it would be okay, although zones aren't supposed to be allowed."

Not everyone agrees with Powers in permitting the zone. "Letting in the zone would hurt pro basketball," Bullet guard Kevin Grevey said. "It would cut down on penetration, which is one of the game's most exciting aspects. Clubs would go out and sign a lot of big, broad guys to clog up the middle and a lot of the finesse and speed of the game would be gone."

And Motta says "you can disguise a man-to-man so it looks like a zone. In fact, if you play man-to-man right, it almost is a zone with all the switching and sagging. I don't know if going to legal zones is good."

Powers may be the first referee to take on the zone dilemma, but he isn't a pioneer in the crusade. Net Coach Kevin Loughery, for example, once drew six technicals in an ABA game for continuing to use a zone despite being told by the officials to stop.Loughery was protesting the use of a zone by the Virginia Squires.

And in December, Milwaukee picked up six technicals - two to Coach Don Nelson, two to assistant John Killilea and two to forward Dave Meyers - for prostesting Atlanta's zones.

Hawk Coach Huble Brown found the Buck's protest amusing. "They use some zone, too," he said, "and I don't complain when they beat me."

What coaches like Philadelphia's Billy Cunningham would like to see is a stronger stance by the league. "Either let everybody play it or don't let anyone," he said earlier this season.

Since most teams zone the 76, Cunningham has become an expert on the subject. He even tried using a four-corner offense to show the referees that his opponent was in a zone. The referees did not respound, so he stopped.

Now even the staid Boston Celtics, who built a dynasty on a switching man-to-man defense (with a little help from Bill Russell in a one-man zone), are using some defenses.

They've been more successful than the Bullets, who will sag and zone their guards play man to man. But everytime they have gone into an out-and-out zone this season, they've been warned to get out of it by the officials.

"We have just stopped doing it," said Motta. "For some reason, our zone looks too much like a zone."

It was Powers' hope that his decision Wednesday night would end "this zone foolishness" by forcing the league to decide how to handle the problem. A lot of players and coaches now are waiting to see whether his expensive protest was worth it.