The Don Collins for Wes Matthews trade last week caused a few eyebrows to be raised in both Atlanta and Washington.

Matthews was perhaps the most exciting Bullet and supposedly their hope for the future; Collins was the smooth, high-scoring type of player for which the Hawks longed. But neither team was doing as well as it had hoped. Expectations changed, then needs changed and finally players changed sides.

The Collins-Matthews swap was supposed to help both teams. So far, it has helped only the Bullets.

The two teams will meet for the first time since the trade tonight in Atlanta (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30). The Bullets are flying high and the Hawks are grounded. Washington has won eight of its last 10, two in a row since Collins became a starter and three of four with him as a Bullet.

The Hawks, meanwhile, are 0-4 since the trade and Matthews hasn't burned up Atlanta.

As a reserve, he is playing 26 minutes a game, but shooting only 41 percent and averaging 7.5 points a game. He also is averaging 4.8 assists and three turnovers.

Collins is playing 28 minutes a game, shooting 60 percent with a 14-point average. He has also shown that he can play defense and will mix it up underneath the basket, despite being only 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds.

"He really gets out and fills the lanes on the fast break and opens things up," said Coach Gene Shue. "Even if he doesn't get the ball, we're a different team with him in there."

With Greg Ballard having found his shooting eye (26.5 points a game and 58 percent shooting the last four games) and Mitch Kupchak playing like a man possessed, with games of 27 and 30 points in two of the last four games, the Bullets are coming on strong and their 24-28 record is the closest they've been to .500 since Dec. 7.

Chicago, in the sixth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, is one game ahead of the Bullets.

The next-closest team is Indiana, which is eight games above .500.

The recent success on the court also has stirred Bullet followers. Through the first 22 home games, the Bullets averaged attendance of 7,451. But in the last six Capital Centre games, the average is 10,178.

Things seem to be breaking right for the Bullets. Elvin Hayes said he sustained a hip pointer and passed up the New Jersey trip Sunday, so Shue started Wes Unseld at center and Kupchak at Hayes' forward spot. Kupchak scored 30 and the Bullets won by 18.

Now Shue is faced with the pleasant problem of who to start. If Unseld and Hayes are healthy, they will be in the starting lineup. That leaves Kupchak on the bench, along with either Ballard or Collins, each of whom has been very productive.

It is not who starts, but who finishes that is important, it is said, so Shue likely will keep Kupchak and Collins beside him on the bench at the start, since both have the potential to come in and change the complexion of a game.

The next three weeks most likely will decide the Bullets' fate. Beginning with tonight's game, eight of the next nine games are on the road, in such hard-to-win places as Portland, Golden State, Phoenix, Seattle and Philadelphia.