Before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson ever played a game in the National Basketball Association, they were being touted as saviors.

They were the bright new stars their teams needed to move to the top of the standings, the charismatic, fresh talents the league needed to pump excitement back into its game.

Both came through in the same manner in which they play the game -- in grand style.

Bird led the Boston Celtics to a 61-21 regular-season record, best in the NBA.Johnson teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the second-best record, at 60-22, marking the first time since 1975 two teams have won 60 or more games in the same season.

But when the NBA begins its 1980 playoffs Wednesday, there are a number of other teams with a shot at winning the championship.

Julius (Dr. J) Erving has taken on a heavy case load in Philadelphia in guiding the 76ers to a 59-23 record.

Defending champion Seattle fell on some hard times at the end of the season, but the SuperSonics have the talent to become the first repeat champion since Boston did it 11 years ago. Runner-up two years ago to the Washington Bullets, the Sonics beat the Bullets in the final last year.

The Bullets return for their record 12th straight playoff appearance, but they are not given much chance of advancing very far this time. (The 76ers have the next-longest string of consecutive playoff appearances -- four.

The Bullets made the playoffs on the last day of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Bullets are the only teams in the 12 team playoff field with records below .500.

Phoenix won 55 games and Atlanta 50, giving the league six teams with 50 or more wins. Last season there were only three: Washington, Seattle and Phoenix.

The four division winners, Los Angeles in the Pacific, Milwaukee in the Midwest, Atlanta in the Central and Boston in the Atlantic, received first-round byes. The other eight teams will begin best-of-three first-round series Wednesday.

In the Eastern Conference, third-seeded Philadelphia will host sixth-seeded Washington at the Spectrum, with the second game scheduled Friday at Capital Centre. If a third game is necessary, it will be played Sunday at the Spectrum.

In the other East first-round series, fourth-seeded Houston hosts fifth-seeded San Antonio in a Texas shootout.

In the Western Conference, sixth-seeded Portland is at third-seeded Seattle Wednesday, while fifth-seeded Kansas' City opens on the road at fourth-seeded Phoenix.

All successive rounds will be the best of seven and the team with the best regular-season winning percentage will have the home-court advantage.

Following is a closer look at the first-round matchups: EASTERN CONFERENCE Philadelphia versus Washington

The 76ers have the home-court advantage and probably are one of the deepest and strongest teams in the league. They play a wide-open, fast-breaking style and have beaten the Bullets five of six times this season. f

Bullet starters may be able to keep up, but when the 76ers use substitutes Bobby Jones and Steve Mix, their superiority shows.

The Bullets are basically a set-up, patterned-offense team that relies on the inside strength of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Greg Ballard.

If the 76ers didn't have the Doctor, the series would be more even. But Erving, along with Abdul-Jabbar and Bird, is probably one of the three best all-around players in the game today.

Erving is in the midst of his best season ever, with 26.9 point average on 52 percent shooting from the field for the regular season. He also averaged 7.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.2 steals and one blocked shot.

If the Bullets can slow the game and make Erving work on defense, they have a chance. If they let the 76ers run, it could be over in two games. San Antonio versus Houston

The Spurs have the incomparable Iceman, George Gervin, who just won his third straight NBA scoring crown with a 33.1 average. Even though Houston will have the home-court edge, Gervin should be the difference.

The Rockets have Moses Malone, but since they acquired Billy Paultz, Malone has been playing away from the basket more and it has hurt his scoring and rebounding. The Rockets must get the ball into Malone's hands if they are going to win.

The Spurs were first in the NBA in offense and last in defense. The Rockets are no defensive demons, but they do work at it a little harder.

Rudy Thomjanovich and Rick Barry, two of the best outside shooting forwards in the game, have not had good seasons. Neither has Larry Kenon of the Spurs, despite his 51 points in the last game of the season.It all comes down to Gervin versus Malone, and Gervin can do it almost by himself. Malone needs help. WESTERN CONFERENCE Seattle versus Portland

The Trail Blazers could be out of their element in the playoffs. They don't have the muscle or the scorers to keep up with the Sonics.

Portland was given a big lift when it acquired Calvin Natt from New Jersey just before the February trading deadline. He averaged more than 21 points a game as a Trail Blazer. But when Seattle brings in reserves Fred Brown, Paul Silas, Wally Walker and James Bailey, most teams wilt. Phoenix versus Kansas City

The Suns have the home-court advantage and if things are clicking, they could be a dark horse to go all the way in the West.

Walter Davis and Paul Westphal are fast breaking wizards, but the Suns are a still well-disciplined, well-coached team. They acquired 7-foot Rich Kelley from New Jersey late in the season to give the somewhat timid Alvan Adams some help at center, but a lack of muscle is still the Suns' biggest problem. After Truck Robinson and Gar Heard, Phoenix is all finesse.

The Kings have some bulk with Sam Lacey, Bill Robinzine and Reggie King, but their offense revolves around guards Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong.

The Kings stumbled a bit when Scott Wedman broke his cheek just before the All-Star Game. They have not been right since, even though Wedman is back now and playing well.