Before Thursday night's game in Milwaukee, John Killilea, the Bucks' assistant coach, went into the Washington locker room with a warning for his friend, Bullets' assistant Bernie Bickerstaff.

Killilea told Bickerstaff that, although the Bucks had clinched the Central Division title long ago, they were going to do everything they could to beat the Bullets.

After they had done just that, 97-90, to push Washington to the brink of elimination from the playoffs, Killilea returned to the Bullets' dressing room and told Bickerstaff they were going to play just as hard against Atlanta, whom they play tonight. "That's the way it should be," said Bickerstaff. "Everybody should try to win every game, and the Bucks are going after it."

The mathematics are simple. To make the playoffs, the Bullets (41-39) must win their remaining two games, and Milwaukee must beat Atlanta (42-39) tonight in the Hawks' final game.

The New York Knicks, one of the teams the Bullets had a chance at catching for a playoff spot, clinched a berth last night with a 100-83 victory against the Detroit Pistons at the Silverdome.

The Bullets lost the season series to both Atlanta and New York, which is the first tie-breaking criterion should teams finish the season with identical records, so the only way the Bullets can make the playoffs now is to finish with a better record than Atlanta.

The Bullets play their last regular-season home game at Capital Centre tonight against the Detroit Pistons at 8:05 and end the season in Richfield, Ohio, Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers (WDCA-TV-20 at 7 p.m.).

"The saddest thing about all of this is that we had it in our own hands," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "We could have gotten in if we had won our last three games, but now we're back to where we need help again.

"All we can do is play hard and hope for some help. We just have to make sure the players are ready to win, because now we have to win, one more loss will end it all for us, and hope that something good happens for us in Atlanta."

The Hawks-Bucks game begins a half-hour earlier than the Bullets-Pistons contest, so Washington will know that outcome before its game is over.

"I just never felt good about Thursday's game," added Shue, "even before it started. We played hard, but we just didn't have it. Milwaukee was at full strength for the first time in a long time, it was its last home game and we were playing two games back to back on the road. We just didn't have anybody who could deliver."

Greg Ballard got into foul trouble trying to contain Marques Johnson and scored only 12 points, while Johnson had 26; Rick Mahorn had only four points and seven rebounds in 39 minutes, and Ricky Sobers missed five free throws.

It was one of those off nights teams have, but the Bullets can't afford such nights. They still have won 12 of their last 15.

"Even if we don't make the playoffs, I'm awfully proud of this team," said Shue. "We really did well these last few weeks and we're playing better than any other team in the conference right now. We deserve to make the playoffs."

In the Western Conference, Portland clinched one playoff spot and Kansas City and Denver are vying for the last one. The Trail Blazers won, 112-106, over Golden State last night to ensure themselves of the playoffs. The Kings were 45-36 after beating the Houston Rockets, 117-102, last night. The Nuggets are a game back at 44-37.

The Kings face the Nuggets in Denver Sunday in the season finale. The Nuggets defeated Dallas, 137-126, in Denver last night.

The playoffs will begin Tuesday with third-place conference finishers Boston and Phoenix hosting games.

Fourth-place finishers New Jersey and Seattle will host first-round games Wednesday.