"Let's go, bruiser," said Cliff Robinson, and with that, Jeff Ruland began his first practice with the Washington Bullets since he fractured and severely sprained his right ankle Dec. 11.

The Bullets, who have won three in a row and five of their last six games, practiced for about an hour yesterday at Bowie State College in preparation for their game tonight at 7:30 against the Atlanta Hawks at Capital Centre.

There are no guarantees that Ruland will play, because he will have to wait until this morning to see if there is pain or swelling. But the odds seem good, although that is mostly because of Ruland's determination. He will not start, and no one should expect to see him on the floor for anywhere near the 39.8 minutes he was averaging before the injury.

"If he's able to play," said Coach Gene Shue, "I'll use him in some situations. But I don't have a plan to use him that much. This is his first day on the court, and I wouldn't want to throw him right in because he's been out so long (21 games)."

Said Ruland: "I'll go to sleep tonight and know more when I wake up."

Shue said he would stay with the starting lineup that he used in the Bullets' 114-112 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night: guards Gus Williams and Jeff Malone, forwards Charles Jones and Robinson, and center Manute Bol.

Ruland did seem to enjoy being on the court again, going through drills and a short scrimmage. "Hell, yeah," he said.

Although his progress has been quicker than was originally expected, there is the flip side. He nodded grimly to the question of whether he was feeling any pain after practice, adding: "Going side to side to side gives me the most trouble.

"There's some swelling, and it will be that way for a while. I'll just keep it loose, brace it and try to play. But it's still healing now."

Shue said that when Ruland does return to form (21.2 points, 12.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists), he will use Ruland and Bol together. Bol had 12 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocked shots against Phoenix.

"Once we get going and once Jeff is back and able to play a lot, we'll start Manute with Ruland," Shue said. "We were playing them in combinations (before the injury), but we didn't start them."

Malone, who led the Bullets with 31 points against the Suns and is averaging a team-high 21.3 points per game, came to practice but left because he didn't feel well.

"Jeff had cold and flu symptoms," Shue said. "He came in and we told him to go home. But he should play tomorrow."

Added Shue: "If he had 31 (points) with the flu, I'll take it."

The Hawks have been something of a surprise this year. After last night's 117-100 win over the Knicks at the Omni, Atlanta had a 23-17 record, which is good for second place in the Central Division, 3 1/2 games behind Milwaukee.

"Atlanta has been playing terrific," said Shue. "They are getting a superhuman effort out of Dominique Wilkins every night."

Wilkins is third in the NBA in scoring, with a 27.5 average, behind Denver's Alex English and Utah's Adrian Dantley.

"They are a very explosive team and he is a very explosive player," Shue said of Wilkins and the Hawks, who have won two in row and nine of their last 11. "They run the break and push the ball up the floor. Wilkins is the guy carrying the team. I mean, they have other great players, but he's getting almost 30 every night."