The Bullets expect to have center Wes Unseld back in the starting lineup tonight when they face the lowly New Jersey Nets in their chase after Chicago for the final playoff spot in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

After last night's games, the Bullets, 35-37, trailed the Bulls, 37-36, by 1 1/2 games. Washington was idle last night while Chicago won in Atlanta. If the Bullets and Bulls finish the season tied, the Bulls will get the playoff berth because they won the season series between the two, 5-1.

Unseld has missed two of the last three games and played only 18 minutes in the other because of a swollen right knee. He couldn't bend it Sunday and didn't dress as the Bullets defeated the Bulls, 103-99, at Capital Centre. Unseld rested his knee Monday and was able to work out yesterday.

Despite Unseld's uncertain condition and Kevin Porter's strained arch, the Bullets have the personnel that gives them the flexibility they need to overcome most short-term injuries.

They've started a different lineup each of the last three games and won all three. Shue started a front line of Elvin Hayes, Greg Ballard and Don Collins against San Diego last Wednesday, and Unseld, Hayes and Ballard Friday in Houston. Against the tall and physical Bulls, he started a front line of Hayes, Rick Mahorn and Ballard.

With Bob Dandridge back and Austin Carr sidelined with a back injury, Collins is being used primarily at the big-guard spot, with Dandridge backing up Ballard. Collins and Dandridge, along with Mitch Kupchak, who had 16 rebounds and 15 points against the Bulls, give the Bullets as strong a bench as they have had since the season started.

Shue has been preaching defense all season because the Bullets at first did not have enough top scorers. Now that they have the scorers, it makes their defense that much more effective.

In addition, to helping the Bullets with flexibiltiy and stability, the return of Dandridge adds defensive guile that could make the difference late in games.

It did against the Bulls Sunday.

Ballard was struggling with his shooting, so Shue put Dandridge in. Chicago had the bull with 18 seconds to play and was only two points behind.

Reggie Theus drove down the lane and appeared to have a clear path to the basket. But Dandridge, who had dropped off his man, saw the play developing and stepped into the lane, surprising Theus and causing him to lose control of the ball as he went up for his shot.

Dandridge said that he is starting "to get back into the flow of things" and that he feels comfortable coming off the bench. He has been back five games and has averaged 7.4 points for 18 minutes a game.