It was the most important game thus far in the season and the Washington Bullets played tonight as they have virtually all year--erratically and inconsistently. They may have played themselves right out of the playoffs.

They lost a 10-point lead in the fourth period and then panicked in overtime, missing all 10 shots from the field, and the Atlanta Hawks defeated them, 94-81, at the Omni.

Former Bullet Wes Matthews forced the overtime when he made a three-point shot with 12 seconds left in regulation. The Bullets had a chance to win it, but Rick Mahorn missed an open 10-footer from the left side at the buzzer.

The overtime was all Hawks as Johnny Davis scored 10 of his 22 points. Meanwhile, the Bullets just kept shooting brick after brick. The only point they scored in overtime came on a free throw by Jeff Ruland.

The Hawks (34-32) have won nine of 12 and are four games ahead of the Bullets in the race for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bullets (29-35) have only 18 regular season games remaining to catch the Hawks or the New York Knicks.

Tonight's victory was doubly important for the Hawks because it clinched the season series with the Bullets. Since the record in head-to-head games is the first tie-breaking criterion for the playoffs, the Hawks, in essence, have a five-game lead over Washington.

"This was really a frustrating loss," said Washington Coach Gene Shue. "I just wish we had someone we could have put in at the end who could have made a diference. We just didn't have anything left for the overtime."

The Bullets beat Cleveland in overtime at Capital Centre Tuesday night.

"This was a very important game, but basketball is strange," added Shue. "You can never tell what will happen. We aren't out of it yet."

The Bullets had control early as their defense took Atlanta out of its offense. The Hawks shot 34 percent in the first half and 26 percent in the third quarter, but the Bullets could not put them away.

Greg Ballard had 26 points, and Ruland and Mahorn, with 33 rebounds between them, dominated inside. But when the game was on the line, the Bullets couldn't hold onto the basketball and whenever they did, they blew the shot.

They committed 28 turnovers, 22 in the second half. Atlanta turned it over only nine times.

The Bullets had a 12-point lead late in the second quarter and led by eight at halftime. They maintained that margin going into the fourth period, and after Ballard's free throw and a fast-break basket by Frank Johnson, the lead was 70-60 with 8:29 remaining. Then the turnovers started coming in bunches and the Hawks came back.

A jumper by Tom McMillen tied the score for the first time at 76 with 57 seconds left.

Mahorn made a turnaround jumper to give the Bullets a 78-76 lead with 43 seconds left in regulation. McMillen got the Hawks back within one by making one of two free throws after being fouled by Ballard with 37 seconds left.

Ruland was fouled by McMillen with 22 seconds left and made both free throws for an 80-77 lead. But Matthews, who made only four of 13 shots tonight, attempted a 27-footer over Johnson that went in with 12 seconds left.

"I like to take my three-pointers from the left side," said Matthews, who had made 11 of 37 before tonight. "It was probably the biggest shot I've ever made. The win is the important thing, but I'm glad I was the one who got the shot."

Two long jumpers by Davis got the Hawks going quickly in the extra period and the Bullets were out of it quickly. Once they trailed by six, they started shooting errant three-pointers.

"What else could we do?" said Shue. "What else could we do?"