Athletes are the only people who work to continue playing. And to keep from an early start on the 35 or so minutes the NBA allots for its between-seasons vacation, Gene Shue is sort of saying to the Bullets: "Anyone want to be Billy Smith over the weekend?"

The nightmare of Smith still lingers in Washington, he being the goalie who could have stopped bullets, had that been necessary, in allowing the Islanders to beat the Capitals and become the first team in the history of pro pucks to overcome an 0-2 deficit in a five-game playoff series.

The Bullets are in similar straits, for no NBA team since 1956 (when Shue was a rookie with the New York Knicks) has recovered from an 0-2 start in a five-game test. If that happens, someone may well have to perform in heroic, Smith-like fashion.

Shue would like for the Philadelphia 76ers to lend a helping hand again, as they did in Game 3 Wednesday night. Facing the beach, or some other form of misery, the Bullets benefited immensely from the 76ers pulling a triple single.

How's that?

You know of the sweet stat, the triple double, where a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, or someone mortal occasionally, amasses double figures in three important areas. Say points, rebounds and assists. Well, the triple single the 76ers posted is as sad a team stat as any in basketball.

Here's what it was: Moses Malone mustered just six rebounds, Maurice Cheeks had only one assist (in 29 minutes) and Andrew Toney had just three field goals (in 16 tries). Teams cannot win 58 regular-season games, as the 76ers did, with such rampant anemia.

The 76ers' coach, Billy Cunningham, surely will remind Toney that he has a better chance of scoring in Game 4 tonight if he shoots from inside Capital Centre. Poor Cheeks cannot fatten his assist total unless the guys to whom he passes start shooting straight. This Moses might need the other Moses to create open space to the basket.

Which brings him, and us, to the most likely Bullet to accept the Billy Smith mantle: Jeff Ruland. When last seen, he was shaking his head from the quarter-cup of beer Rick Mahorn had dumped on him after the Bullets had dodged 0-3 humiliation.

Small victories deserve small celebrations.

"At least we have something to go on," Cliff Robinson said. "We had nothing before."

In truth, it was success much larger than first inspection might assume, because if the 76ers had swept the series the Bullets might have cleaned house in a mild panic. Winning one game, and in such an overwhelming and entertaining way, surely keeps them from shredding building plans doodled last year.

Beating the 76ers at their own game, running, emphasizes that the Bullets ought to continue that uptempo direction rather than the plodding path that might have been retraced had they endured back-to-back blowouts -- and elimination.

Ruland missed 45 regular-season games, and the Bullets were less than ordinary. He seems at least three-quarters full of gusto, and the Bullets certainly have a chance to make this series suspenseful. On the whole, they'd rather be in Philly come Sunday.

At 6-11 and wide as the Treasury Building, Ruland is one of those extraordinary players who makes many around him better and a few near him terrible. Robinson gets more open shots because of Ruland. Gus Williams gets to fly more often. Frank Johnson gets more playing time because he and Ruland communicate so well without talking.

Enormous as he is, a part of Ruland's game often gets overlooked: passing. He just might be the best passing giant since Bill Walton was bearded and in good health.

"Hit the open man is how the game is supposed to be played," Ruland said. "Like the Knicks in the early '70s." And the Walton-inspired Trail Blazers.

A left knee that required surgery in college was more troublesome than his shoulder during Game 2. Ruland said it often rebels at too much punishment after a long layoff, such as his return to duty for the playoffs. Sunday, he was tentative. Wednesday, he was terrific.

On offense, a raging Ruland wrecks even sophisticated tactics. Left one-on-one with Malone Wednesday, he wheeled time and again for twisting layups or short hooks. So the 76ers, not being dumb, decided to half-surround Ruland with another player. When they did he hit the open man five times for field goals.

But he had six turnovers.

"Passing's one of my strengths, but it sometimes gets me in trouble," he admitted, adding that because he sees passes develop his teammates do not, the ball too often bounces off a Bullet and out of bounds. But he and Johnson have a special rapport, especially on pick and rolls.

"If my man moves half a foot," he said of Johnson's passing instincts, "I have the ball in my hands."

On defense, Ruland has Malone in his hands. And on his hips. And bumping off his chest, elbows and knees. Ruland tries anything to keep that most relentless of forces as far from the basket as possible. Malone paid a postgame visit to the Bullets' dressing room, and there were some hoots about his having sailed so many shots from afar.

He and Ruland exchanged a grudging shake, left-handed, as Malone walked to chat with Charles Jones. There was almost no eye contact. On the court, the contact had resembled a bulldozer bumping a mountain. Trying to nudge Malone toward the sky boxes, Ruland got him fairly close to three-point range, though not nearly as far as Toneytown.

"Hell, yes, I'm glad to see him so far out," Ruland said.

Tonight, he anticipates "another war" with Malone. He has a chance to be the Billy Smith of the Bullets, but fatigue could be a factor. He said he lost some weight during the layoff and "can't even retaliate against Rick's pushes in practice." The beer bath from Mahorn he can tolerate. Even cherish.