It was not, to be sure, championship basketball displayed by the Washington Bullets in the first half Tuesday night at the Omni. Not 1978 at all.

But, after an abysmal start, the Bullets overcame a 20-point deficit to stop the struggling Atlanta Hawks, 105-104, before 7,090 at the Omni. The Bullets, with a balanced attack led by Elvin Hayes (23 points), Greg Ballard and Kevin Grevey, won their eighth victory in nine games. The Bullet record now is 25-28 and the team has won four of the last five road games.

Atlanta lost its 12th of 13 games and dropped to 19-32.

"At the start of the season, we always seemed to be coming up short," said Ballard, who had 22 points. "And now it seems like we're coming up on the positive side."

The Hawks had their biggest lead, 67-47, on a shot by former Washington guard Wes Matthews with 11:19 left in the third period. Washington gradually cut the lead to four by the end of the third period, 82-78, taking advantage of Atlanta's poor shot selection and four turnovers. The Hawks made eight of 26 shots from the field in that quarter.

"The third quarter -- that's what we call good defense," said Washington Coach Gene Shue.

"I think . . . our downfall was the third period," said Atlanta Coach Hubie Brown. "You can't go two of 14 when you're up by 16 points at the half and expect to win. You've got to give credit to them for fighting back."

In the fourth period, the Bullets took a five-point lead, 99-94, their largest, following a Hayes dunk with 4:13 left. Baskets by Eddie Johnson and Drew cut the lead back to one, 99-98, before Mitch Kupchak got inside for a layup with 3:03 left for a 101-98 Bullet lead.

Following two foul shots by Drew, Hayes sandwiched four points around a Tree Rollins layup; two from the free throw line following a Matthews foul, and the final two Bullet points on a jump shot with 48 seconds left for a 105-102 advantage.

Tom McMillen scored on a hook with 35 seconds left to bring Atlanta within one. Hayes' final attempt from the field bounced off the rim as the shot-clock buzzer sounded and Atlanta had four seconds to set up a final play.

Matthews inbounded the ball from half-court to Drew, who turned and fired a 20-footer that bounced off the rim as the game ended.

"It's been a great team effort all year," said Hayes. "We've won eight of our last nine and right now we're putting something together."

The Hawks, hurt this season by injuries to Rollins and Dan Roundfield, have complained about not having a full squad.

"I don't think there should be any excuses for the Hawks," said Hayes. "They've got two guys playing on the All-Star team, two good centers and two good forwards. Hey, they shouldn't be losing that many games."