When it was over, after Gus Williams had scored 23 points, made a team-record nine steals and handed out nine assists in his debut at Capital Centre, Washington Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry lit a long cigar.

He took a puff after the 119-104 victory over the Atlanta Hawks and said, "That was fun, wasn't it?"

Indeed, except for a stretch early in the third quarter when they scored just six points in 7 1/2 minutes, the Bullets delivered on their promise to the opening-night crowd of 7,249, providing an up-tempo, exciting team to watch.

"I've been here for over 500 games, and this was the toughest trying to keep track of everything," statistician Marty Aronoff said during a timeout in the frenetic first half.

Washington led at halftime, 64-58, with Williams getting 15 points, six steals and four assists. But it was 79-74, Atlanta's favor, late in the third quarter when he and the Bullets went on a 28-6 streak that made their record 2-1.

The nine steals gave Williams 12 in three games this season and brought him to a career total of 1,359, only 45 behind Randy Smith's record of 1,404. Frank Johnson, John Lucas and Wes Unseld had shared the Bullets' record of eight; Williams' one-game high is 11, when he played for Seattle.

On a night his mother Rosanna celebrated her 60th birthday and he gave away 2,000 carnations in her honor, Williams said, "Our defense is a little bit ahead of our offense. As soon as the offense catches up, people in the Washington area will be in for a treat."

The Hawks wondered what Williams could do for an encore.

"The best I've ever seen him play," said reserve guard Jerry Eaves, who in the past played at Utah, a frequent opponent of Seattle.

"I've never seen him play like he did tonight," guard Eddie Johnson said. "He looks half asleep, then he's got the ball and he's gone. I've never seen him playing any better."

In the first half, Williams twice darted in behind Johnson and stripped him of the ball a split second before he could release his shot. One steal led to a layup by Williams, the other to a followup basket by Greg Ballard (20 points, 16 in the first quarter) off Williams' miss.

"A couple of times I might just as well have handed the ball to him as I passed it," guard Glenn Rivers of the Hawks said. "He was incredible. But, to tell you the truth, we gave him a lot of help."

As much as everyone was excited over Williams' defense, Coach Gene Shue pointed to his two baskets in the final 33 seconds of the third quarter. With 37 seconds left, the Bullets led by 85-81 after a three-point play by Jeff Ruland (21 points, 14 rebounds) off a nice assist by Frank Johnson.

Shue summoned Johnson to the bench, sending Williams back in. As he walked to the scorer's table, Williams was given one instruction by Shue: "Shoot."

"I put Gus in the game to get two shots," Shue explained. "What did he do? He got two buckets (on jump shots of 19 and 22 feet) and almost got a third. That made it (the Bullets' lead) eight instead of four."

From there, it was all Washington. Williams' ninth steal, with 4:10 to play, resulted in Ruland's free throw, another of Washington's 34 points scored directly off the fast break.

Asked how he liked Washington, Williams said, "It's been just delightful so far."

He hardly wanted to talk about his game, praising his teammates ("It has to be total team defense, because if they don't have pressure on the ball, I can't make the steals") and saying the Bullets "have the makings of a great defensive team."

Of his steals, Williams said, "It's anticipation. Defensively, what you have to do is play in advance. You know their plays. You try to play in advance. Sometimes you get burned for it."

But last night he was pure cool. Said Hawks Coach Mike Fratello, "Gus is an all-star. He showed our guys the difference in the level of play." Atlanta center Wayne (Tree) Rollins sprained his right foot in the third quarter and did not play again. Trainer Joe O'Toole said he didn't think the injury was serious . . . Forward Sly Williams led the Hawks with 19 points . . . The Bullets play the Milwaukee Bucks tonight in Milwaukee (HTS cable at 8:30).