Several minutes before tipoff yesterday, serious NBA watchers in Capital Centre knew the most interesting matchup would not be a Washington Bullet against an Atlanta Hawk. It would be Elvin Hayes versus Jack Madden.

They came into the league at nearly the same time, Hayes as a player and Madden as an official, and shortly became involved in what Hayes called "a little altercation in San Diego."

That little altercation, Hayes told teammates, included his smacking Madden near the throat with his forearm. For about 11 years now, Hayes has begun to curdle whenever he sees Madden. An dthe Bullets constantly remind Madden, during games, that he fouled Hayes out of the seventh game of the NBA championship series last year in Seattle.

So wise fans assumed as soon as Madden walked onto the court before game one of the Bullets-Hawks playoff that he would catch Hayes with an early foul or so, that Hayes would throw a tantrum and very likely earn a technical foul.

They were right on every forecast. And if Hayes had not gathered himself mentally, after nearly three minutes of frightful basketball, the Bullets could have been in deep trouble against the clawing Hawks.

"All my teammates kept saying, 'You can't worry about the officiating, no matter what happens,'" Hayes said after the Bullets' victory. "Even the other official , (John) Vanak, came up to me and said: 'You're too good a player to let things bother you. Paly your game."

Hayes' frustration began with slightly more than four minutes left in the half. One of the NBA's least known good players, Dan Roundfield, blocked Hayes shots on consecutive trips down court.

All of a sudden Hayes became dominant-for the Hawks-at both ends. When Atlanta had the ball, after the second Roundfield stuff, Hayes batted away a shot that had no chance of going in the basket and was called for goaltending.

When the Bullets got the ball, Madden called a three-second violation on Hayes. Then Steve Hawes scored from nine feet-and Hayes screamed so loudy Madden signaled the predictable technical. Armond Hill missed the shot, but Roundfield followed with a tip-in that brought the Hawks from six down to a tie.

"We keep saying we're going to bury the hatchet before games," Hayes said-and in fact Madden could be seen patting Hayes on the back just before tipoff. "But we never do."

A Bullet aide said that during the first half Madden blew his whistle 14 times and that 12 of the calls went against Washington. He said that, in fact, one of the two calls in the Bullets' favor nullifield a Hayes follow-up.

"What can you do?" Hayes asked. 'Why can't he just call the game and not permit this thing to go ahead? Why can't he call what's out there? I don't ask anything; I don't need anything. He should be big enough to call the game the way it is, not go after one guy.

"'it's tought to play with an official talking to you during the game. He can hit me with a technical if I talk to him. But what can I do? I've got to try and block it out, keep talking to myself, reminding myself the game is more important.

There are Bullets who whisper that Hayes causes problems for himself by fussing whenever Mqdden makes a call. And there are non-Bullets familiar with the feud who insist the Bullets hamper themselves-and Hayes-with constant badgering from the bench.

Officiating in the NBA is the most subjective profession in all of sports. But Madden is generally regarded as being among the top five officials in the league. He is often inclined, though, to be less impersonal than he should be and has enough pride not to be intimidated by anyone.

"You've got to remember," one Bullet said, "that we won two playoff games in Seattle last year with Madden as one of the refs, including the one E fouled out of. And E was around at the end today, when it counted, wasn't he?"

Indeed, Hayes had two fouls in the first half and just one in the second. He was four for 12 from the field the first half and seven for 12 in the second. He also was seven for 12 in the second. He also was seven for 10 from the free-throw line in second half.

Bullet Coach Dick Motta was surprisingly quiet about the Hayes-Madden fuss, especially since it was Madden who ejected him from the game that could have been his 500th career victory had the Bullets not lost.

"I don't want quoted on any of this," he said. "Hey, once I got fined $250 for saying something nice about an official."

How's that?

It seems Motta was publicly critican of the official-not Madden-and was told to stop. So when he mellowed and was mildly complimentary toward the fellow, he says he was fined for opening his mouth.