"Anyway," said Gene Shue, starting his postgame press conference, "the lead didn't mean anything."

It almost never does. The Bullets could make a game against your aunt Harriet's bridge club close, and the Atlanta Hawks--bless 'em--were trying their best to win yesterday in Capital Centre. Both teams were, quaking in their Nikes at the prospect of meeting the dreaded Philly horde in the NBA playoffs this week.

The Hawks' coach, Kevin Loughery, got a technical; the Bullets were caught playing zone defense in the third quarter; Rick Mahorn disguised himself as a door once against his former Bullet roommate, Wes Matthews, with a pick that had the little Hawk fluttering to the floor, close to kayoed.

They could have called a 75-foot stretch of the left side of court Collins Avenue during the second quarter. No Hawk, maybe nobody in basketball, can stop Don Collins from finishing a fast break. He's the Bullets' bullet, their swiftest player, but more on aim during a high-speed chase in traffic than taking an unguarded 18-foot jumper.

As usual, Washington was wonderful the first half, intercepting passes off half-court traps and running like few Bullet teams since Wes Unseld had healthy knees. Came the midpoint of the third period and the Bullets, like marathoners at about the 20-mile mark, hit that energy-sapping point that starts them staggering.

Were the Bullets lulled by that 71-51 lead in the third quarter, a questioner unfamiliar to Shue asked? The coach laughed.

"We're doing the best we can," he said. "Believe me."

Yesterday, it was good enough to fight off the Hawks, clinch fifth place in the Eastern Conference and assure a playoff series against a beatable team, the New Jersey Nets.

Shue hardly is awed by the Nets, although he did say: "They've won their last five, and Ray Williams tuned up (against Detroit Saturday night) with 52. That's not his uniform number."

The geniuses taking notes stayed silent.

"A sense of humor there," Shue reminded.

Probably, Shue will be smiling during the playoffs as long as Frank Johnson stays terrific. He's the one complete, totally healthy and dependable guard the Bullets have. A fellow who can dribble, run, pass, shoot and chew gum all at the same time.

For whatever comfort it may be for Shue, Eddie's little brother says he stopped being a rookie 13 days ago.

"Against Cleveland here (April 6)," he said. "That's when I learned to play ball the NBA way, the way Coach Shue wants me to play. I'm running the half-court offense better, distributing the ball better, shooting better. Before, I was walking the ball up at the wrong times, pushing it up at the wrong times.

"Now I push it up when the defense is backing up. I noticed how Luke (John Lucas) would go with the flow and sneak by (the opposition in transition) for a layup or assist. That's the way Tiny (Archibald) runs a game, keeps pressure on the defense."

Several long-range shots caught Eddie's attention yesterday. They did not check each other, but did get close enough for some brotherly bantering.

"He'd hit three or four in a row, so I'd say: 'Wake up! I haven't seen you this hot since your freshman year (at Wake Forest).' " Eddie slapped his face to emphasize the point, smiling all the while, proud to have Frank justify a prediction he'd made a year ago.

"He told me I couldn't miss in this league," said Frank, who is three years younger than Eddie.

Frank wasn't so sure at first. Uncertain and injured at times after being Washington's first-round draftee, he slowly gained confidence. And more playing time. When he drove and scored against the Bucks' tough Quinn Buckner not long ago, he realized Eddie just might be right.

"I wasn't sure how I'd react to bullying," he said. "But I didn't back off. I went right at him."

When the tardy John Lucas was about to replace him in the first half yesterday, Frank went right for the hoop. He sank a 17-footer, and then a 20-footer. Atlanta called time; Lucas put his warmup jacket back on. Then Frank forced another shot, missed and Lucas hustled in.

"You gotta do the job there," Shue said later, a catchall remark that applied to that situation as well as Lucas playing just two minutes after arriving about two minutes before tipoff.

"He doesn't have to look at the bench now," said Eddie, meaning Frank can make a mistake or two without being benched.

The Johnsons grew up going at each other on the playgrounds, Frank saying that his team would win 11-point pickup games if Eddie could be held to nine. If he got 10, some other teammate, however clumsy, would almost always throw in a lucky shot.

"He's more suited to the off (shooting) guard spot," Frank said of Eddie. "I used to feel comfortable there. Now I feel comfortable (as the lead guard). I want the ball in my hands."

Twice he went at Tree Rollins yesterday, daring to intrude on the turf of a man nearly a foot taller. Some customers thought it folly, but it worked for two relatively uncontested layups. Frank was all but certain it would.

"He was in foul trouble at the time," Frank said, "and he couldn't afford to get another one. He knew it; I knew it. He played it very smart."

Both of them did.