In a contest fraught with irony, the Washington Bullets lost the first game in their best-of-five NBA Atlantic Division playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers tonight, 104-97.

Washington Coach Gene Shue, after bitterly complaining during the last two months of the season about his team's lack of an inside game, could only watch in horror the way, in the last 4 1/2 minutes of play, Philadelphia ran off 12 of the final 16 points to overcome a 93-92 Bullets lead.

That the 76ers were able to take control in the late going was a direct result of Washington turnovers. Between Gus Williams' free throw with 4:21 to play and two foul shots by Jeff Ruland with 1:24 remaining, the Bullets lost the ball five consecutive times. Following Ruland's free throws, the team failed to get off a shot on two of its next three possessions.

Most of the errors came in an attempt to force the basketball inside to Ruland. After missing the last 42 games of the regular season because of a strained right shoulder, Ruland was remarkably effective in his first action since Feb. 1, scoring 20 points and taking 10 rebounds in 37 minutes of playing time.

Down the stretch, though, the 76ers capitalized on the Bullets' overzealous dedication to finding the center in the low post. With 3:49 to play, after getting the ball, Ruland fired a bullet pass off the hands of Charles Jones and 11 seconds later Maurice Cheeks connected on a jumper for Philadelphia.

The scene would be repeated for the rest of the game, a Washington turnover followed by a basket or free throw by one of the opportunistic 76ers. Moses Malone scored 26 points for the winners, two more than Julius Erving. Cliff Robinson had 24 for Washington, which outrebounded the home team, 43-40.

If there was any lack of 76ers inspiration, there were only 7,170 customers in the Spectrum for this leadoff game of pro basketball's second season.

And there were 24 turnovers by the Bullets. During the regular season they were the second-best handlers of the basketball in the NBA, averaging just over 15 miscues per game.

"We were just very careless with the basketball," Shue said. "Other than that we played well, we were in there good. We'll be doing some things better next game."

Apart from the turnovers, there were very few things Washington could have improved upon. The final score to the contrary, the team accomplished most of the things it set out to do against the 76ers, slowing down the game by controlling the tempo of the contest both on offense and defense while taking advantage of the occasional fast break.

Most of this was done with a somewhat patchwork lineup on the floor.

Ruland's return was tempered by the loss of guard Jeff Malone, who wrenched his lower back in the first half. Stiffening up in the locker room during intermission, the sharpshooter was unable to return to the game.

"There was no way I could play," Malone said. "Guarding people like Andrew Toney, you have to have your back and everything else working."

A postgame locker room examination indicated Malone will be able to play in Game 2 here Sunday.

It was thought that the Bullets' chances were dependent upon Malone's steady offensive production, but they contrived to overcome his loss through strong performances by Dudley Bradley (10 points, six assists) and Jones (11 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots).

Those two, along with Ruland, Robinson and Williams, were on the floor during assorted Washington comebacks, the last coming with the Bullets down, 90-85, with 7:42 to play. Ruland scored on a hook shot across the lane, drawing a foul from Moses Malone. The three-point play made the score 90-88 with 6:08 left and 32 seconds later the game was tied, on a pair of free throws by Robinson.

The forward, making his first playoff appearance in six NBA seasons, scored on a jumper at the 5:09 mark to give Washington seven straight points and a 92-90 lead. The run was broken by Erving's layup with 4:35 to play. Fourteen seconds after that, Williams hit the second of two free throws in the Bullets' prelude to error.

Over the course of the game, the Bullets would trail by eight points in the first quarter, nine in the second, 11 in the third and the five-point margin in the final period. Rallying each time extracted a price: the Bullets had to play the last 2:34 without a timeout.

The embarrassing situation was caused by a first-half snafu in which the Bullets asked for a 20-second timeout and received that plus a full one, according to Shue. "First of all, I want to say that the table screwed up and the officials screwed up. Between the table and the officials, there was no communication whatsoever. Someone should have taken control and they didn't."

When he finally came up for air, even Shue had to admit that the mixup wasn't the true cause of defeat; that could be determined just by looking at the play-by-play. "They started forcing me out more and more, which gave them better defensive angles," said Ruland.

"We'll have Friday and Saturday to work on what to do about it, but I think we're going to be like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, we're going to make the series a war."

The Sixers couldn't care less about how violent or how slowly paced the games are, just as long as the final results are the same.

"The pace favored the Bullets, but we won and that was what we dedicated ourselves in this locker room to doing," said Erving. "This is one in what we hope is a series of victories."