The Washington Bullets had been waiting more than half a season for tonight, for the pain in a valuable right shoulder -- and all their problems -- to finally disappear. With the return of center Jeff Ruland at 6:34 of the first quarter against Philadelphia, they got almost everything they expected: the bulk, the rebounds, the inside assists.

Everything except what they needed most. A victory.

"I feel great," Ruland said after the Bullets, ahead by one with 3 1/2 minutes remaining, lost the first game of their playoff series, 104-97. "I'm happy, except for the fact that we didn't win."

For a man who hadn't played a basketball game since the dead of winter, 42 games ago, and hadn't practiced with his teammates until two days ago, Ruland looked remarkably sharp.

"Jeff Ruland didn't appear to be away from basketball very long," said Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham. "I didn't notice signs of fatigue."

Ruland nearly answered Cunningham a locker room away.

"Not bad for a guy that's missed 45 games, huh?" he said. Two of those games were with a scratched cornea in December, the other 43 with a strained right shoulder.

Ruland scored 20 points, four fewer than Cliff Robinson, the Bullets' leading scorer. Ruland led the team with 10 rebounds. He played 37 minutes, third highest on the team.

And, perhaps most surprising, he didn't seem to lose his timing. He had seven assists, well above his average of 4.4 per game this season, which was the best among centers and power forwards in the NBA.

"We probably wouldn't have played as well tonight without Jeff," said Bullets guard Gus Williams. "He looked good tonight. He has been running and practicing, but there is nothing like a game."

Yet, in one of the game's most crucial moments, Ruland made one of his few mistakes.

The Bullets, down by five with 7:42 remaining in the game, took a one-point lead on Williams' free throw at 4:21, and, after a Philadelphia turnover, had a chance to go ahead by three.

The ball went to Ruland, who moved into the key, rocking on his heels, looking for a hook shot or a pass. On him was Moses Malone, his shadow for the evening with the return-to-sender elbows.

Ruland fired a short, crisp pass to Charles Jones as Jones charged underneath the basket, a pass too hot to handle. It ricocheted out of bounds at the 3:39 mark of the final quarter. The 76ers then reeled off seven straight points for a 99-93 lead.

"It was probably more my fault than his," Ruland said. "I threw it behind him. It should have been a hoop."

The ultimate goal lost, Ruland was left to savor the personal feats. "It feels great," he said a minimum of 10 times about his shoulder. "I can only get better.

"I'll just have to come back Sunday with a vengeance."