It took the Washington Bullets nearly three quarters to rid themselves of the playoff jitters tonight. But once they did, they raced past the New Jersey Nets and won the first game of their best-of-three National Basketball Association Eastern Conference playoff series so quickly the Nets hardly had a chance to realize what was happening.

What was happening was that second-year center Rick Mahorn and two rookies, Jeff Ruland and Frank Johnson, were becoming playoff veterans as the game progressed, and it was they who led the Bullets to a 96-83 victory at the Meadowlands Arena.

The second game of the series will be played Friday night at Capital Centre at 8:30. If a third game is necessary, it will be played at the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon. The defending NBA champion Boston Celtics await the winner.

Mahorn didn't take a shot in the first half, but was seven for 10 after intermission as the Bullets made up a 10-point deficit late in the third period, then pulled away in the last quarter.

Ruland dominated inside with 20 rebounds and 18 points. Johnson had 15 points and 11 assists.

"We were playing tight in the first half," said Mahorn. "It was my first playoff game and it felt like it. At halftime Coach (Gene Shue) and some of the players got on me to get more involved and I finally loosened up. We have the home-court advantage now and I feel a lot more relaxed."

Johnson also overcame a shaky start. He missed three shots and had three turnovers in the first five minutes as the Bullets fell behind, 16-6.

"We started the game very, very tentative," said Shue. "We couldn't make any shots or hold onto the ball or anything. It became almost laughable in the huddle during the timeouts. It seemed like we would never make a shot. I just kept telling the players to keep playing defense and keep running the offense. Things finally started to work."

The Nets, even with Ray Williams making only four of 19 shots, held a 63-55 lead with 2:28 left in the third quarter. Then the game turned around.

Another Bullet rookie, Charles Davis, grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled by New Jersey's Mike Gminski. He made the two free throws, then Mahorn scored two straight baskets, one on a move inside against Buck Williams, the other after taking a pass from Johnson.

After Darwin Cook missed a layup, Ruland rebounded the ball and the Bullets cleared out a side for Johnson. He went one on one against Cook and scored a 10-foot base line jumper with two seconds left in the quarter. That tied the score for the first time.

The Bullets opened the final quarter with their ninth and 10th straight points, those coming on Mahorn's jump shot, and took the lead. The score was tied four times after that, the last time at 71 with 8:38 to play. It was all Bullets from then on. A 16-2 run at that point did most of the damage. Kevin Grevey started it with a 17-foot jumper and ended it with two free throws. Johnson and Ruland each had four points.

The only points the Nets scored in those five minutes came on two free throws by Ray Williams.

Both of Ruland's baskets in that flurry came off a new play. The Bullets put Mahorn, Ballard and Grevey out high on the right side, set Ruland up in a low post on the left side and had Johnson with the ball on the left side. That reduced it to a two-on-two game between Johnson and Ruland and the Nets' Len Elmore and Cook.

Elmore and Darwin didn't have a chance. Under the new NBA rules, the Nets had to play a straight defense and Johnson beat Cook easily. When Elmore tried to help, Johnson dumped the ball off to Ruland for easy layups.

"That worked a number of times tonight," said Shue.

"The key to this game was still the key to all of our games, though: the defense. That's what enabled us to stay as close as we were when we were playing so badly early. We were able to minimize the productivity of Cook and Ray Williams."

The Bullets used Don Collins, Grevey and Garry Witts on Williams and, although he did get eight assists, he never was a serious scoring threat as the Bullets kept him far outside most of the game.

Cook, starting for Foots Walker, who sprained an ankle badly in the Nets' last regular-season game Saturday night, made only six of 18 shots and missed five in a row when the Bullets were pulling away.