It's still a bit early for the Bullets to put much importance on any one game, but every time they play the New York Knicks, there is an added incentive.

The Knicks are one of the teams the Bullets need to overtake to get into the playoffs and, going into tonight's game at Madison Square Garden (WTOP-1500 at 7:30), the Knicks, with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference (17-15), lead the Bullets (14-18) by three games. Six teams in each conference make the playoffs.

The two teams have met only once this season, Dec. 3 at the Garden, and the Bullets won easily, 114-88. Greg Ballard, the hottest Bullet of late, had 33 points and 14 rebounds that game.

"All of the games in our division are key games," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue, "but especially so with teams like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Indiana, the teams we're competing with for a playoff spot."

The Knicks have been juggling their lineup virtually all season and finally Coach Red Holzman has decided on one. He still is not totally satisfied, but he has just about run out of options.

Ironically, Maurice Lucas, one of the steadier Knicks, had a sore knee five games ago and sat out a game. The Knicks played great without him, so he has been relegated to the sixth-man role, and Campy Russell has been inserted back into the starting lineup.

With Russell and Sly Williams at forwards, the Knicks are back to running and playing a wide-open game, as they did a year ago.

The other starters are Bill Cartwright at center and Michael Ray Richardson and Randy Smith at guards.

The Bullets started rookie Frank Johnson at the playmaking guard spot in place of John Lucas in their last game against Cleveland after Lucas had missed a game the previous night in Philadelphia for "personal reasons."

Lucas played only 13 minutes as a reserve against the Cavaliers and didn't score.

Shue said he would continue to start Johnson and the way the rookie from Wake Forest has been performing, it will take something unusual for him to lose the job back to Lucas.

Shue added that there is a possibility he might start another rookie, Jeff Ruland, against the Knicks. Ruland has scored in double figures in each of his last 11 games as a reserve and has had more than 20 points in five of them. Ruland is 10th in the league in field-goal percentage, shooting 57 percent, and is averaging 13.1 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Spencer Haywood, who has missed the last two games with a calf injury, practiced yesterday and Shue said he might start tonight. Jim Chones has been starting in Haywood's place.

If the Bullets are going to make a move on the playoff contenders, this is the time to do it, because after tonight's game 10 of their next 13 will be at Capital Centre.