Late in the first quarter last night both the Capital Centre scoreboard and the Bullets began to go haywire. Only the Bullets were irreparable.

Or at least unable to fully recover with one final gasp in the final period. From having the Hawks on the ropes early, from resembling the best team in creation the first 10 minutes, the Bullets went sour just enough to lose and force another playoff siege of Atlanta Thursday.

The fans were slightly restless when the Hawks narrowed an 11-point deficit to five; then were frustrated as the time lights on the scoreboard failed to operate. Then the entire very expensive scoreboard went blank and all the second quarter was played under primitive conditions.

With makeshift 24-second clocks in operation and one side of the arena often not quite sure who was leading and by how much, the pesky Hawks suddenly rose from the dead. Mainly, they came alive because the Bullets had no one to defend their guards and an area favorite-or former favorite- hit nearly everything he tossed toward the hoop.

It would be inaccurate to say Tom McMillen shot the lights out, because many of them already were blank by the time he started his barrage. But he and Terry Furlow allowed the Hawks a rare dominance of Bullet reserves.

"Most courageous win in my three years as coach," Hubie Brown said. "There aren't enough ajectives to describe what Furlow and McMillen did."

Coach Dick Motta had some adjectives for his Bullets, few of them complimentary. In the early going, the Bullets were scoring in spurts. Later, Atlanta made them dance to its tune-and the Bullets lost control of the boards and lost their touch from the freethrow line, once missing four or five tries on the same possession.

The Hawks went almost the last three minutes without a point-and Washington had a chance at a tie with 26 seconds left. Motta decided to keep Wes Unseld and his injured knee on the bench, a wise move if the Bullets win one of the next two games and take the series.

Charles Johnson instead of Larry Wright in the final six minutes seemed a strange decision, because Wright had made four of seven shots while CJ had missed all his four up to then.

Johnson did score two important baskets during the Bullets' rally. But earlier defensive sins by the entire Washington guardd corps and the Hawks' edge rebounding were too much to overcome.

A half-hour after the game, Furlow still was shooting, with his mouth.

"The Bullet guards haven't done a thing," he said, "except Wright-annd he can be handled. We just haven't seen him enough yet. (Tom) Henderson can do only so much, and (Kevin) Grevey is luckyy to be playing on this team.

"All he can do is shoot. He can't assist and rebound. When he's cold, he's no good to anybody."

This has been an exceptional series in many ways, basketball at its lowest and highest levels. The intensity has been scary at times. Redskin blocker could take technique lessons from Bullets and Hawks setting picks. Hand checking? These games havve had cross-checking.

Sometimes basketball is best appreciated from afar, or at least high enough to see its grace and precision, every pattern from beginning to end. For the Hawks versus Bullets, ring, er, courtside is best.

Only close up could longtime McMillen watchers realize how close this Rhodes Scholar is becoming a, well, brawler fits about aas well as anything. He has been Tom McMean this series-and that is meant as a compliment.

The Tender Tom of Maryland days has been buried. Now McMillen trots on court with pads on both knees and both elbows and an evil look about him. He hitches up his shorts, actually snorts a time or two, then rebounds and plays defense like an enraged, gray-haired crane.

And he still has that lovely jumper.

McMillen was such a pain that the largest cheer of the night came when he fouled out with 28 seconds left, having scored 19 points, taken at least three charges and drawn a cut over his eye during a collision with Mitch Kupchak for which he was called for the foul.

"I just try to keep the ball from Elvin (Hayes)," he said, before having the eye stitched. "That's an awesome feat in itself. You just hope that they forget about him. If I let up for a minute, he's got five points."

Hayes played splendidly before a flurry of fouls sent him to the bench midway through the fourth quarter. But Bob Dandridge missed 11 of 19 shots and the Hawks stayed tough when they could have tucked in their wings early.

Still, the happy Hawks are realistic.

"Confident?" Brown said. "We're down three games to two, we haven't won a playoff game from them on our court and you're asking a question like that?" CAPTION: Picture, Steve Hawes of Hawks outreaches Bullet Mitch Kupchak for rebound of Bob Dandridge's missed free throw late in the game. Hawks held off Bullet rally to take a 107-103 decision. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post