It is difficult to imagine the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA playoffs and impossible to see them pushing the Bullets past five games.

The Hawks? The embodiment of team play. Exquisitely coached. And tough. Along with their jump shots, the Bullets had better ring ice packs and iodine to Capital Centre today.

Much of the athletic world considers the Bullets as the tough guys on the pro hoop block. And their smallest fron-court player, Bobby Dandridge, is larger than most NFL tight ends.

Compared to the Hawks, though, the Bullets are cuddly, Atlanta attacks in waves. When one player has fouled out, another is ready with claws equally as sharp. Or perhaps Hubie Brown uses that zone because John Drew, Dan Roundfield and Tree Rollins really cannot play defense any other way.

The Hawks are the foulingest team in creation. Consider some of the season's strangest numbers: Drew and Rollins each fouled out of 16. The entire Bullet team fouled out of 18.

Still, some of what Altanta does best plays to what the Bullets do worst. Washington is not an exceptionally stron outside-shooting team and the Hawks make everybody throw up perimeter jumpers. Or bleed shooting layups.

And the Hawk's inside players sometimes shoot well enough from the outside to draw Washington rebounders away from the basket. Also, the Atlanta guards are better than the casual fan realizes. Reserve Terry Furlow can play.

But the Bullets have better, bigger players and more of what Coach Dick Motta calls "trusted depth." The 10th player off the bench is the former All-Star, Phil Chenier. And the Hawks lost seven out of every 10 games away from Atlanta this season.

Even before the tipoff of Game 1, the Bullets have gotten some playoff breaks. Atlanta seems highly preferable to the Moses Rockets. And future opponents Philadelphia and San Antonio could exhaust themselves going at one another for possibly seven games.

Should the Bullets continue what enabled them to win the NBA title last season and compile the best regular-season record this season they even would have history as an ally later this week.

That would happen if they won the first two games in Washington. According to the Bullets' numbers wizard. Marty Aronoff, only one team in all the seven-games series in the past seven years has overcome a 2-0 deficit. That was Portland against the 76ers in the final series two years ago.

Which means the second game of a series is more important than the first.

However, the team with the home-court advantage lost five of the seven-game series last year, the Bullets contributing to that number by overcoming that drawback in each of their three tests.

A year ago the Bullets began their championship push against the Hawks, sweeping a two-game series that both teams used as motivation. Even though they were up 18 points in the third quarter of the first game and played without Dandridge in the second the Bullets were sufficiently scared to work hard the remainder of the playoffs.

The Hawks were encouraged to improve last season's 500 record by 10 games, to at last flutter and scratch hard enough to silence the bird-like echos of : "Cheap, cheap, cheap."

For several sasons, the Hawks were among the most futile teams in all of pro sports. One of the reasons was a remarkable flair for allowing talented players to escape. They managed to draft David Thompson and Marvin Webster the same year, 1975, and sign neither.

They were 20 games under .500 Brown's first season, then .500 and now 12 games above this season if playoff victories this week over Houston are included.

And now they have exactly the mental edge over the Bullets that the Bullets had througout much of the playoffs last season: Few expected them to advance even this far.

Meanwhile, Motta is trying to rouse the Bullets from their only slumber of the season, games 80, 81 and 82. He is trying to tell them that while they are indeed talented and tough they are not invincible.

Until last year, one could nearly always look at the Bullets and spot one obvious weakness, a position the opposition could attack with relish. Wes Unseld either was not dominant, Kevin Porter not tall enough or Mike Riordan had lost his touch.

Atlanta will be trying to exploit Bullet problems. Tom Henderson will be forced to shoot. Kevin Grevey to play defense, Elvin Hayes will be doubled-teamed. But the Bullets this time are deep and well-rounded. For this series, at least, their major problem is not the Hawks but themselves. CAPTION: Picture 1, Wes Unseld, right, pushing around Philadephia's Darryl Dawkins, takes toll on foes with his screens.; Picture 2, Bullets start defense of NBA title today, matching up with physical, hustling Hawks of Altanta in 1 p.m. game at Capital Centre. Photos by Richard Darcey-The Washington Post