Could the Washington Bullets be on the cutting edge of this season's NBA playoffs? Will the clock strike 12 for the Cinderella Cavaliers from Cleveland? Does any team in the Western Conference know who it will face in the postseason, and, given the way the Los Angeles Lakers have steamrolled through the opposition, does it matter?

In the next week, those and many more questions will start to be answered as the Boston Celtics attempt to become the first team in 15 years to repeat as league champions. Perhaps none of the other defenders of the crown played as the Celtics did this season in compiling a 63-19 record, the best in the NBA.

Yet even Boston has weaknesses that could be exploited and, in that sense, the champs are no different than any of the other 15 teams in the playoffs. After completing an 82-game season to determine which teams won't get a chance to select Georgetown's Patrick Ewing in the June 18 draft, the 16 survivors must now endure a trek to the title that could last until the week before the draft.

The playoffs will begin Wednesday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the 76ers open against the Washington Bullets.

It was the hope of the NBA that no series would open before Thursday, but the National Hockey League Flyers, who share the building with the Sixers, took priority on that night.

The second game in the series is to be played on national television (CBS) next Sunday. The network had hoped to present a game involving Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, but what they will get instead could be a more dramatic story.

The 76ers are considered to be the best Eastern Conference bet to unseat the Celtics, but Philadelphia has had problems despite a 58-24 record. The team has won just six of the last 14 games, perhaps because of injuries to all-stars Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Andrew Toney (who was reactivated yesterday).

The Bullets, too, have had injury problems but could be buoyed by the return of center Jeff Ruland, who was scheduled to practice today to test the strained right shoulder that has kept him inactive since Feb. 1.

If Ruland can return, it would add bulk in the middle, perhaps the Bullets' shortcoming as they have gone 2-4 against Philadelphia this season. Although there is some doubt that Ruland will be in shape to contribute, by simply taking up space and throwing his weight around he could be important.

It doesn't take a lot of conditioning to whirl around and sink a two-foot layup, and if Ruland is in the lineup, the 76ers would have to concentrate on stopping that, which could bode well for players like Jeff Malone and Greg Ballard, who might get more open jump shots.

Malone, a second-year guard, represents another key for the Bullets. Over the final two weeks of the regular season, he has been tired because he's had too much on both ends of the court. Much of Washington's postseason success will depend on Malone's performance.

Although it generally is assumed the 76ers will advance to an eventual meeting with the Celtics, Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams says, "I just hope we can get there. We'll definitely have the tougher road to hoe."

The winner of Washington-Philadelphia will meet the winner of Milwaukee-Chicago, a prospect Williams says "is terrifying."

Although Williams says "if there is a Philly-Boston series it will be a seven-game classic," there is a good chance one of the two squads will be upset. A look at the first-round matchups:

Boston-Cleveland: If the 76ers had beaten out the Celtics for first place in the Atlantic Division and drawn the Cavaliers in the first round, the series would be prime candidate for the upset special.

Cleveland, making its first postseason appearance since 1978, beat the 76ers in their last four meetings and lost the game prior to that on a last-second tip-in. The Cavaliers had no such luck against Boston, though, and have lost to Larry Bird, Robert Parish, et al., 15 straight times.

"I hear that the winner of this series is favored to win the whole thing," says Cleveland General Manager Harry Weltman. While the string of Cavaliers losses may end, it will be obvious that the oddsmakers didn't have Weltman's team in mind.

Milwaukee-Chicago: The Bulls were 0-5 against Philadelphia this season and some eyebrows were raised at the way Chicago avoided having to face the 76ers.

Coach Kevin Loughery's team entered Friday's final quarter against Atlanta ahead by eight points. Had the Bulls won, the Bullets (already having been beaten by Detroit) probably would have opened against the Bucks and Chicago would have met Philadelphia.

Apprised of the situation, Loughery pulled his starters from the game, returning Jordan and Orlando Woolridge into the game in the last four minutes, by which time the Bulls were trailing by eight in an eventual 119-108 loss.

The Bulls finished the regular season with a 3-3 mark against the Bucks, the surprise winners of the Central Division, but it shouldn't take Milwaukee the full five-game series to dispose of Chicago.

Detroit-New Jersey: Although the Nets won five of the six meetings between the teams, the Pistons have a good chance for a couple of reasons. The first is the deceptiveness of that regular-season mark. Three of the five New Jersey victories were accomplished in the last seconds.

Second, the Nets still are adjusting to the loss of guard Otis Birdsong with a broken hand and the slow reacclimation of center Darryl Dawkins into the lineup after missing half the season with back troubles.

Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson says, "Something's missing with Detroit." If there is a series besides Philly-Washington to go five games, this is likely to be the one.

Western Conference: This playoff picture is an exercise in futility, mainly for the seven teams that have to stand in the shadow of the Lakers. Playing predominately against Western Conference opponents, L.A. has won nearly 90 percent of its games since mid-January.

Cleveland Coach George Karl gives short shrift to the pretenders in the West. "The Houston Rockets have the height with Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, but do you really think Lewis Lloyd, Lionel Hollins, Rodney McCray and John Lucas are better than Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy and Michael Cooper?" Karl asks. Of the Denver Nuggets, coached by Doug Moe, Karl says, "Doug is a good, good friend of mine, but they can't beat L.A. In fact, with the style of ball they play, they could have trouble winning a first-round series."

Perhaps the best choice for an upset, San Antonio, had its hopes deflated when rookie guard Alvin Robertson, a defensive wizard who had come on over the last half of the season, broke his right foot recently, taking out the only player on the team who potentially could deal with the Lakers' Johnson.

The first team to take a shot at Los Angeles will be the Phoenix Suns. This matchup was the only Western Conference series that was determined before the last day of the regular season, and the Suns are wishing that someone else were here.

Phoenix was one of the teams that lobbied strongest for the lottery system to determine the order of the June draft, but toward the end of an injury-riddled season, one coach in the East accused the Suns of easing off in games to be a part of the seven-team lottery. "Their only problem was that they started too late," he said, snickering.

In the conference's other matchups, Utah plays Houston, San Antonio meets Denver and Dallas plays Portland. The Rockets, Nuggets and Mavericks all have the home-court advantage and are likely to come out on top in the opening round, with Houston eliminating Denver before being served to the Lakers.