The Bullets may stay in the playoff picture all season, but until they prove they can compete with the premier teams, there can be little hope for any postseason success.

Philadelphia raced to a 20-8 lead tonight, then put it in cruise control and coasted to a fourth straight victory over the Bullets this season, 122-96, before 8,709 in the Spectrum.

Despite their third straight loss, the Bullets still are at the .500 mark (22-22), but, significantly, are 0-11 against the three top teams--Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee--in the Eastern Conference.

The excuse this time was that the Bullets were without their leading scorer, Greg Ballard, who sprained his right ankle in Tuesday night's unforgivable one-point loss at home to lowly Cleveland. But even his usual 20 points wouldn't have made up the final deficit.

Ballard's absence hurt the team more defensively because a frustrated Coach Gene Shue had nobody to guard Julius Erving, who put on a dazzling display, scoring 32 points in just 25 minutes. However, Erving is going to get at least 20 points anyway, so his total wasn't that extraordinary.

The way he did it was.

Although they never recovered from that opening blitz when the 76ers made an incredible 12 conecutive shots, the Bullets still were in contention after four minutes of the third quarter.

After Kevin Grevey (23 points) made three successive long jumpers, the Bullets were within eight, 70-62, when Philadelphia called timeout. The obvious word from Coach Billy Cunningham was his familiar refrain: "Get the ball to the Doctor."

Erving took over the game at that point. He started with an 18-footer from the corner, then followed with a layup on a fast break. Next was a 17-footer from the left side and, when Mahorn fouled him, the perennial All-Star forward turned it into a three-point play. A crowd-pleasing hook shot ended his scoring, but before he sat down for the evening a minute later, Erving intercepted a pass and flipped a perfect lob to Maurice Cheeks for an uncontested layup that gave Philadelphia an 81-67 advantage with 16 minutes to play.

That's when Erving sat down for good as the crowd roared its approval because the Bullets obviously were finished.

"Dr. J was great," Shue said afterward. "But we didn't have anybody to play him. You can never stop Doc, but you hope to control him and tonight we didn't have any control.

"It hurts us so much when we have a key player out," the coach continued. "Maybe other teams can get by, but we obviously can't. I just hope Greg is ready Friday for Los Angeles."

The Bullets have home games with the front-running Lakers and rapidly improving Denver (Sunday) before embarking on a two-week, six-game Western swing. Hopes of staying above the .500 mark this month seem bleak.

Erving shrugged off his 13-for-18 shooting performance, saying that the 76ers were able to get the ball inside against the Bullets early and that set the tone for the night.

"I was able to get inside early because the Bullets like to switch and when they do, you can gain a step on them. When we're running our fast break well, we can gain advantages in switching situtations."

Caldwell Jones opened the game by missing a short jump shot. The 76ers didn't miss again until Erving's foul-line jumper fell short with 3:25 left in the period.

The reason the 76ers couldn't miss was that all their shots were taken within five feet of the basket. They were slicing through the Bullets defense like a knife through soft butter.

"We were looking inside, trying to get our big men involved," Erving explained. "We're trying to get Caldwell (Jones) more shots because he's got to give us what we had when Darryl (Dawkins) was in."

Erving obviously was referring to the absence of Dawkins, who has a fractured bone in his leg and isn't expected back until early March, according to Cunningham.

"I didn't look for my shot any more because Ballard wasn't here," Erving said. "We were playing our usual game, but I got in a good groove and started hitting my outside shots. Once I do that, they can't double-team."