The Bullets will be running for their playoff lives against Seattle Tuesday night.

"If we can't shoot the ball, we have to at least get enough fast-break and transition baskets to take the pressure off our set offense," Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach, said today.

"We can't always start our set offense with 10 or 11 seconds left on the (shot) clock. When we do that, if we make one mistake, we don't have any time to recover."

Washington's fast break has been in hibernation since the opening contest of this NBA championship series. In losing Game 3 Sunday, the Bullets got only two transition baskets - at least six under their average - and fell behind, 2-1, in the final round.

Now they are faced with the challenge of either generating an improved running game or having at least one guard snap out of his shooting slump. Otherwise, they may not be able to prevent the Sonics from going up, 3-1, by winning this 11:30 p.m. confrontation in the Coliseum (WDVM-TV-9).

"If we get behind, 3-1, it's going to be tough to come back," forward Elvin Hayes said."This is a must game for us. We win it and we are back in charge again."

In the first two series of this season's payoffs, the Bullets somehow picked themselves up after wretched performances and pulled out each round, but their task this time is more formidable.

They are producing their poorest offensive efforts of the season against a defensive-minded team not likely to blow a 3-1 margin as San Antonio did.

"We just aren't playing well," Bickerstaff said. "It's teamwide. We took 106 shots Sunday and couldn't put many of them in.

"We've got to do something to take the pressure off our shooters. The best way to do that is to push the ball up and shoot off the flow. I'm not talking about having a fast break every time, but at least let's take better advantage of the 24-second clock."

The only time the Bullets have run successfully in this series was during the first three quarters of Game 1, when they exploded in an 18-point lead. Coincidentally, that also was the last time they shot decently.

Over the last nine periods, the team has been totally frustrated. The defense has been spotty, the outside shooting horrendous and, on Sunday, even their offensive rebounding was horribly inconsistent.

During those 108 minutes, the Bullets have shot just 36 percent. They fell to their season low in points (82) and accuracy (32 percent) for a game yet still find themselves in a position to regain control of the series.

The history of the playoffs and the Bullets' own track record are in their favor for this game, despite their poor performances. It is extremely difficult at this level for any club to beat another three straight times, a feat Seattle will try to achieve Tuesday. And the Bullets have lost more than two games in a row only twice all season.

"I'm looking forward to this game," forward Bobby Dandridge said. "I think we can live up to the challenge. It's too early to count us out.

"It's really a matter of concentration. We know what we have to do. We just hve to concentrate on executing it. We know we should push the ball up, but we aren't forcing ourselves to do it."

Much of the burden of generating the break will fall on Hayes, who did not rebound well on the defensive boards Sunday, and Wes Unseld, who must produce his bullet outlet passes profusely. And playmaker Tom Henderson has to take a cue from Seattle's Gus Williams and push the ball up court every time he can.

Henderson has struggled during the playoffs. He has been reluctant to shoot from the outside and his defense has suffered, but the Bullet coaches were encouraged by his aggressiveness in the second half of Game 3, when he drove four straight times to the basket.

"It's hard to get my rhythm and get my game going," Henderson said about his erratic playing time during the series. "But I'm not the coach, I'm not paid to coach. I do what they tell me. I'm not playing that good, but I don't think anyone on the team is playing that well."

Kevin Grevey, the other starting guard, knows his minutes depend almost entirely on how he shoots. When he is on, he stays in games, but when he misses a couple of quick shots, as he did Sunday in the second half, he quickly is yanked out.

"Both Tommy and I play better in a more wide-open game," Grevey said. "We like to run and put it up. It helps me get into things better and I know Tommy feels he can score only if he has a lot of shots off transition plays."

The coaches believe Larry Wright, of all the guards, is most likely to supply consistent outside shooting during the rest of this series. He already has had one fine game (26 points in the opener) and is the only guard shooting near 50 percent for the 17 playofff games. Otherwise, the guards range from Grevey's 40 percent to Phil Chenier's 21 percent.

"I don't think I'm shooting enough," Wright said. "If we just come out and shoot naturally, we can win. I have to look for my opportunities and put them up when I have them."

Wright normally has been covered by the Sonics' weakest defender, Williams. He has had no trouble finding openings, but even he was aiming his shots in the second and third games.

Despite his erratic shooting, Charles Johnson still is being given a regular playing turn. He had a great series against the Sonics last year and Bickerstaff is convinced "he may be able to snap out of it and become magic again."

"What have we got to lose by putting him in?" Bickerstaff said.

"No one is doing any better. If his shooting will pick up, then he can help us, in other ways, too, with his defense and his fast hands. You know he wants it so badly. He's so frustrated that he can't produce."

There is nothing the Bullets would like more than to have Hayes produce an outstanding scoring game. Although he is averaging 18 points in the series, he hasn't asserted himself on offense the way he did against Seattle last year.

He will be asked by the coaches Tuesday night to take his normal turnaround jumper instead of wheeling and facing the basket as he has been doing. The turnaround shot allows him to fall away from the Sonics' double-teaming tactics and should make it easier for him to get off attempts. CAPTION: Picture, Concern over Bullet plight shows as Coach Dick Motta and his assistant, Bernie Bickerstaff, talk during practice. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post