Rick Mahorn had a short stay on the Washington Bullets' crowded injury list late in January, when he missed two games with a sprained right wrist after crashing to the floor in a game against Cleveland.

The injury was severe enough to warrant a more extended recovery period. But the needs of the team, with Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson already injured, took precedence. So 6-foot-10, 250-pound Mahorn returned, saying, "I'll be able to get some rest when Ruland comes back."

Of course, Ruland was not able to come back during the regular season, leaving Mahorn -- his brother in bruise -- to struggle alone.

Hindered both by the sore wrist and constant foul trouble that limited him to less than 30 minutes of action in 21 of the last 26 games, Mahorn finished with an anemic 6.3 points per game average.

Perhaps even more painful for Mahorn were Coach Gene Shue's constant remarks about the Bullets' lack of an inside game during Ruland's two-month absence.

At one point during the Bullets' practice yesterday at Bowie State College to prepare for Game 2 of the team's best-of-five series against the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday, Mahorn and Ruland collided and fell to the floor in a heap. When Mahorn got up, it was obvious the pain in his wrist still was present.

But that fall didn't carry the import of the fall against Cleveland.

Now, with the return of Ruland, Mahorn's presence is not as critical. Wednesday's 104-97 loss to the Sixers marked Ruland's first game since Feb. 1. But he played as if he never had been away, with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Mahorn spent most of the night on the bench. Though he started, he played only seven minutes, missing two shots from the field and getting three rebounds.

Things aren't likely to change much for Mahorn over the remainder of the series. For Game 2 in Philadelphia on Sunday, Shue is considering putting Ruland in the starting lineup, a move that is likely to place his Beef Brother Mahorn on a figurative hook.

"It's a situation that everyone has to deal with at some point, and that's what I'm doing, dealing with it," Mahorn said yesterday. "I'm sure I'll get an opportunity to play, and when I do I just have to make the most of it."

There is little question Mahorn will play. The problem for Shue is when to get him on the floor. The coach says he wants Ruland in the game during potential crunch time late in the game but is fearful that the center might get into early foul trouble jousting with Moses Malone. In that instance, Mahorn might become a sacrificial lamb.

That might not be far removed from the role Mahorn played late in the regular season. Often, officials' whistles sent him off the court for long stretches. It seemed he didn't play for more than five minutes at a time.

"I would just keep coming back and playing ball but I think a lot of it had to do with reputation," he said. "Officials get used to looking for certain things, like Jeff and I beating up on people, but because he was injured, instead of having to look for two people banging, they only saw one."

When Mahorn left Wednesday's game after his brief workout, he had two fouls. With the tighter officiating that usually accompanies the playoffs, Shue said it might be in the Bullets' best interest to have Mahorn on the floor early. "If you start Jeff and he gets into foul trouble, it defeats everything we're trying to do," said Shue. "I don't know in my mind yet who's going to be starting or not. I do know that playing against Moses can lead to a lot of trouble."

When Ruland entered the game midway through Wednesday's first period, the second happiest person on the Spectrum floor most likely was Mahorn. "I was really happy, not only because he's a good player but because he's a good friend," Mahorn said. "He worked hard to get there."

Mahorn had done his share of hard work as well. Over the summer he visited the highly acclaimed camp for NBA big men, run by Pete Newell, the Golden State Warriors' Director of Player Personnel. The camp stresses footwork and, at times, Mahorn has shown he learned his lessons well.

Unfortunately, the final product -- putting the ball in the basket -- often was a problem. For the season he shot 50 percent from the field, great for a guard but not for an inside player.

"I guess this season was a struggling one for me," Mahorn said. "There was the adjustment to new people and to being in foul trouble a lot again. But one of my ambitions was to be in the playoffs and we're there. We'll just have to go from there and see what happens."

The team was forced to take that sort of wait-and-see attitude regarding Jeff Malone's wrenched back, too. Malone, who was injured in the first half of Wednesday's game, was scheduled to see team physcians Thursday but cancelled because of overnight improvement.

However, while stretching out on Thursday night, he said the injury flared up again. "It just went out on me," he said. "It hurt but not as bad as on Wednesday." Malone was a spectator for most of Thursday's practice, but said yesterday there is no doubt in his mind that he'll play Sunday.