It is quickly becoming the National Basketball Association's First Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Touch.

No longer is the league turning the other cheek and ignoring that sinful mugging technique known as hand-checking, which the pros once flaunted as a major difference between their game and what those nonbelievers in college play.

Instead, in the interests of improving its image and reducing the threat of violence (by limiting contact), the NBA is trying to become the Mr. Clean of pro sports.

But as far as many coaches and players are concerned, the "Look Ma, No Hands" experiment is the work of the devil. They feel like they are being fed to the lions of change unnecessarily.

"Quite simply," said Bullet assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff, "you are taking away one part of what made the pro game different than college or high school. Now I think you might see the creation of the ABA style of play before it is over."

The red, white and blue basketball might be buried forever, but the wide-open, horde-of-points, what-defense? philosophy of the ABA already is rising like Lazarus from the sports graveyard and haunting NBA games this season.

Games are longer (the NBA says only by a minute but don't tell that to the Bullets), fouls are more plentiful, scores are higher (by an average of 10 points) and a few coaches probably are checking their contracts for escape clauses to some monastery far from the sounds of a referee's whistle.

Suddenly, it is blessed for players to be quick and youthful and a burden to be strong but slow.

Already, there is a scramble to off-set the new emphasis on finesse and agility. Teams are turning more and more to another deadly pro basketball sin - the zone defense - to bring some sense back to this orgy of offense.

"If you can't stop man-to-man," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson, whose team was called twice recently for using a zone, "what else can you do? I hate the zone, but if it's the only way to win, there may not be an alternative."

Not true, says the NBA, which went so far this week as to deliver a sermon of success on the new rules, which also include adding a third official. And to prove its point, the league quoted everyone from Red Auerback to schedule-maker and founding father Eddie Gottlieb, all of whom praised the changes to high heavens.

Missing from the NBA gospel, however, were player quotes, save for some from Gail Goodrich. On the whole, they disliked a third whistle, the need for zones and the reduced physical contact.

"You have the best scorers in the world in this league," said Bullet guard Kevin Grevey. "I don't care how good you are on defense. The advantage always will be with the offense, especially if you can't use your hands to help out."

Added guard Tom Henderson: "You see more contact in an Interhigh game than you do in the pros. Unless you want huge scoring games every night, you have to have hand-checking. you've got to allow some contact."

For years, the only way a player like Paul Silas or Henry Bibby survived on defense against quicker opponents was with a hand check. Putting a hand on a dribbler's hip was an effective - and legal - way for an elephant to take a half-step away from an antelope.

"Stronger guys could ride someone like Larry Wright right out of the offense," said Bickerstaff. "Without his quickness, Larry was in trouble."

Now, however, referees are calling even the slightest hand contact, especially out front between the guards. So teams are left to stop offensive machines like Julius Erving or George Gervin with straight-up defensive techniques. That's like trying to halt a runaway car with a stop sign.

As a result, there is less defense than ever in a league where that phase of the game already was rivaling the fate of the Christians against the lions, at least during the regular season.

Players are now reduced to concentrating on position and quick feet on defense, which are your basketball fundamentals in high school and college. They say that's not enough to control and Erving, since he always has the advantage of moving forward. And besides, there was always something macho about the NBA and its added contact with the hands.

"I don't think the changes are good for the NBA," said Bullet head Coach Dick Motta. "The contact wasn't hurting the game. It made it different. We can adjust, although it will take time."

Take, for example, the Bullets' dilemma against San Antonio's Gervin last Saturday. Last year, they were somewhat successful against him if they could muscle him on offense and make him work on defense. But without the treat of hand-checking, Gervin can maneuver almost at will. He was especially successful in this contest by backing in toward the basket against defenders who could not lean on him to prevent his relentless journey.

"You are seeing an awful lot of people like Gervin just driving the middle whenever they want," said Bickerstaff. "You can't control them at the top of the key with a hand so they just take off."

Faced with that type of defensive problem, coaches look to a zone to help out. That way, teams can clog up the middle, reduce penetration and take away some of the reliance on quickness and individual techniques.

There is only one hitch in that thinking, however: NBA rules specifically point out that the zone is illegal. But is difficult to find a player or coach in the league who will say he hasn't seen the zone used more this year than even last season, when it was very prevalent.

"Everyone is being smart about it, mixing up zones and man-to-man," said Henderson, "but the zones are there. When a guy stands and doesn't move on defense all game, it's kind of hard to say he isn't in a zone."

Atlanta's Eddie Johnson, for example, supposedly was guarding Henderson in a game last week at Capital Centre. But Henderson would run through the lane and out to the corner and Johnson would stay at the top of the key. But Atlanta was not called for using a zone, an automatic technical foul this season.

"The gutty call isn't saying a team is playing a zone," said Motta. "Refs are calling that a lot. But no one is calling it a second time in a game. It's like once they make the first call, they've done their duty and you can stay in a zone all night."

According to the rules, a team can double and triple-team all it wants in its standard defense, as long as the players who aren't double-teaming are guarding opponents and not areas of the floor.

"If they are two-timing us, there should be a man open for us," said Bickerstaff. "And then the ref has to determine whether he is wide open or whether he is being guarded or what. There is just too much gray area involved."

Nor are defenders supposed to stand fixed in the lane, like goliaths protecting a holy shrin. If they do so for longer than three seconds, the rules call for an tutomatic technical. Yet not once in the Bullets' first 12 games has a three-second violation been whistled, even against the Lakers, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all but brought out a chair and read a newspaper in the lane.

"One solution," said Bickerstaff, "is to say it's okay to use a zone and then increase the shot clock to at least 30 seconds.

"Twenty-four seconds isn't long enough to work the ball against a zone. Some people think the zone is bad, period. I don't, but unless they help you out with a longer clock, it's going to change the game.

"I never like a lot of hand-checking either. But I don't see anything wrong with one 'chuck.' It evens things out a bit and gives the defenders a chance."