It was another one of those important games for the Bullets and, for the second night in a row, they failed to meet the challenge. As a result, their playoff picture that looked so bright two days ago is dimming.

The Atlanta Hawks, one of the teams the Bullets are trying frantically to stay ahead of, caught them tonight. The Hawks took a 30-16 first-quarter lead and stopped every rally the visitors mustered, winning, 106-101, before 6,895 at the Omni.

The Hawks are tied with the Bullets (37-37) for the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The New Jersey Nets, who defeated the Bullets Friday night, are in fourth place at 38-36. The first six teams in the conference qualify for the playoffs.

The Bullets, who lost their third in a row, missed 11 straight shots during one stretch of the first quarter and for the period made only six of 23.

Spencer Haywood, who finished with 21 points, made three of six field goal attempts that period; the other Bullets went two for 20. John Lucas, who had an impressive 13-point, 13-rebound game, and Charles Davis were the only other Bullets to get a field goal in the quarter.

"We got off to a very slow start and dug ourselves a gigantic hole," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We just don't have the type of team that can get out of holes. We aren't explosive.

"I told our players before the game that it was important for us to get out quickly because Atlanta had played two tough games in a row and we thought they might be tired. They did come out slow, but we didn't hit our shots and that was the difference."

The Hawks had lost to Milwaukee by four points Thursday and to Boston by three points Friday.

The Bullets twice reduced the deficit to five points before the final period and drew within three points twice in the final 63 seconds, but Atlanta always came up with a play to keep them at bay.

With the Bullets trailing by five in the last two minutes, Jeff Ruland, who had a pro career-high 28 points (11 of 16 from the floor), scored on a power move inside. Garry Witts then stole the ball from Eddie Johnson and was fouled by Johnson in the back court.

Witts made two free throws to cut Atlanta's margin to 102-99 with 1:03 remaining. Dan Roundfield, who had a brilliant 33-point night on 14-of-18 shooting, was fouled by Haywood with 41 seconds remaining, and he made two free throws to get Atlanta's lead back to five.

Ruland scored seven seconds later on another strong move inside and the Bullets trailed, 104-101.

The Hawks called time and ran down the 24-second clock. As Johnson drove to the basket, Ruland blocked his layup with 11 seconds left, but Roundfield was able to tap the loose ball to Rory Sparrow. The Bullets had to foul and Ruland grabbed John Drew with six seconds left. Drew, who had 25 points, made both shots.

Shue tried everything imaginable to keep the Bullets in the game, using all his players except Carlos Terry and Jim Chones in the first quarter.

He even had reserves Lucas, Witts and Ruland start the second half, along with Ballard and Haywood. "Those were the ones who were playing the best," Shue said.

"Usually when the shots aren't falling, we can rely on our defense to pick us up, but it didn't happen tonight," said Ballard.

Atlanta shot 55 percent, partly because the Hawks got so many fast-break baskets.

"We were tired tonight, so I was concerned even when we got that big early lead," said Atlanta Coach Kevin Loughery. "Roundfield gave us a big lift all night and Rory Sparrow had a great game."

Sparrow, a 6-foot-2 guard, scored only seven points, but had 10 rebounds and 15 assists, both highs for him as a pro.

The most beleaguered of the Bullets' shooters was Kevin Grevey, who played only 16 minutes and missed all five of his shots. With Frank Johnson going one for three and Don Collins missing both shots, the only effective Bullet guards were Witts (eight points and three assists) and Lucas, who didn't commit a turnover in 40 minutes.