The Bullets could begin their quest for a second straight National Basketball Association title much the same way they finished the last third of the regular season: shorthanded.

Bob Dandridge and Greg Ballard, both of whom have the flu, missed yesterday's final workout for today's 1 p.m. Eastern Conference semifinal-round opener against Atlanta.

The status of the two forwards, who have been sidelined two days, won't be determined until game time, although the Bullets think both will be able to play. Otherwise, Mitch Kupchak, still not 100 percent himself after a three-week bout with back spasms, will open at small forward against Atlanta's leading scorer, John Drew.

An Easter crowd of 15,000 is expected in Capital Centre. The game will not be televised here.

Although they are heavy favorites to win the best-of-seven series, the Bullets cannot afford to be undermanned for long against the pesky Hawks. This promises to be a physical, rough-and-tumble confrontation that could become known as the Series of the Whistle because of all the likely fouls.

"At least we are well-prepared for playing shorthanded," said Elvin Hayes. "Last year, even though we won with injuries, I think there was always doubt in our mind that we would be okay when we were shorthanded.

"Not this year. We've made it with as few as eight players. We know we can adjust. Lack of numbers alone isn't going to beat us."

Atlanta, which is coming off a firstround playoff upset of Houston, is healthy and should be bubbling over with emotion under the prodding of its driven coach, Hubie Brown.

The Bullets realize that, since they are the odds-on choice to win another title, opponents will be especially motivated. Unlike last year, when they could sneak up on overconfident foes in the playoffs, the Bullets have to shoulder from the beginning the pressure that goes with being king of the hill.

They also are fully aware of two troubling trends in the NBA over the last decade: no defending champ has repeated since Boston won in 1968 and 1969, and no team with the best regular-season record has gone on to win the playoffs since Los Angeles in 1972.

"Part of this trend might have to do with overconfidence," said Wes Unseld. "You know you have beaten everyone else and, as much as you guard against it, you still probably think you call go out and win by showing up.

"We've got to push ourselves to make sure that doesn't happen."

Atlanta most likely will help with providing that motivation. The Hawks are so irritating that they anger opponents. As much as teams might want to ease up against them, their style of play prevents any letdowns.

The Hawks are the league's most foul-prone team, averaging almost 30 personals a game. Bullet Coach Dick Motta says that Atlanta goes into every game figuring it can give up 12 fouls a position, and it plays defense predicated on losing one or two players.

In four meetings with Washington this year, Atlanta averaged 31 fouls and the Bullets shot an average of 35 free throws. Five Hawks, in all, fouled out, on a team that had 79 disqualifications this season.

But Atlanta also managed to split four games with Washington, each club winning on the other's home court. None of the contests was decided by more than four points. In 10 games over the last two years, only two have been won by more than six points.

"They are going to claw and scratch and bite and we are going to claw and scratch and bite right along with them," said Hayes. "They think they can be physical against us but they are wrong. We can match strength with anyong in the league. They aren't going to push us around.

"Last year, they were one of the reasons we won the title. When we beat them in the miniseries, we had to have a sharp offense and be alert. So we know this is going to be tough."

Atlanta, which improved its record by five games this season, is a better team than the one the Bullets knocked off in two straight in that miniseries.

The Additiion of 6-8 forward Dan Roundfield (15.3 points, 10.7 rebounds), a free agent signed away from Indiana, gave the Hawks much-needed strength on the boards and another shot-blocker, along with Tree Rollins, to patrol the inside. And a midseason deal that brought them 6-4 Terry Furlow (12.0 points) from Cleveland for Butch Lee eliminated another weakness, lack of outside shooting from the back court.

Six-foot-9 Steve Hawes (10.5, 7.3), a fine outside-shooting big man, and Rollins (8.4, 7.2), an aggressive, foul-prone. hard-nosed player, share time in the middle. Drew (22.7) is the main offensive threat but Brown won't stay with his talented small forward if he gets into foul trouble.

The guard tandem of playmaker Armond Hill (10.2 six assists) and speedy Eddie Johnson (16.3, 51 percent shooter) has given the Bullets trouble this season. Johnson, a fast-developing second-year man, averaged 19 points, seven assists and shot almost 52 percent against them.

Brown wants to keep constant pressure on opponents, so he suffles nine players every game, including rookie swingman Jack Givens and 6-11 Tom McMillen, also a good outside marksman.

The Hawk defense sets up its offense and the Bullets will be striving to prevent Atlanta from controlling the tempo with its double-teaming and overplaying.

Moota isn't sure how sharp his team will be for the opener. The Bullets weren't able to practice as hard as he wanted this week, and their physical condition, because of those late-season injuries, is in question.

"We can't come out flat," he said. "We've had a week off and that worries me, too. All Atlanta has to do is win one of two up here and they'll be on top of the world." CAPTION: Picture 1, Wes Unseld, right, pushing around Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins, takes toll on foes with his screens. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Bob Dandridge of Bullets is a probable starter despite flu.; Picture 3, Bullets start defense of NBA title today, matching up with physical, hustling Hawks of Atlanta in 1 p.m. game at Capital Centre. Photos by Richard Darcey - The Washington Post