Washington Bullets center/forward Jeff Ruland had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee yesterday and might be able to return for the last games of the first NBA playoff series.

Kenneth DeHaven, an orthopedic surgeon at Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center who performed the arthroscopic surgery on Ruland's torn lateral cartilage, said Ruland "hopefully" will be able to play in three to six weeks.

"If he comes around, if his knee responds well, then it's possible he might be able to make some of the playoffs," DeHaven said yesterday. "It all depends on how he responds . . . It's fairly unpredictable. It could be three to four weeks, or six weeks, or even longer."

Ruland said: "I'm just playing it by ear right now. I'm just glad it's over. I've been up and walking around a little already. I'm doing isometrics now. I come back to see Dr. DeHaven on Friday, and after Monday I'll probably start lifting weights."

Asked about coming back for the playoffs, he said, "It's always a possibility, but everything would have to go perfectly."

Ruland was not expected to have surgery until Friday, but an opening in the hospital's schedule permitted the change. The operation originally was scheduled for last week in Washington at Sibley Memorial Hospital, but was changed so DeHaven, a well-known specialist, could perform it.

DeHaven removed a torn portion of cartilage. "Surgery went well and there were no problems," he said.

Ruland was scheduled to be released today from Strong Memorial.

The Bullets, who will play at Atlanta (46-30) tonight at 7:30, are assured a playoff spot. They would play the third game in a potential five-game series at home three weeks from today, according to a Bullets spokesman. If Ruland returned that soon, he would play in at least one postseason game.

There is no question, however, that the oft-injured Ruland, 27, will miss the rest of the regular season. He played in only 30 games (NBA teams play 82 in the regular season) and had missed 16 of the Bullets' last 18 games with what was diagnosed as a strained left knee. This is the second consecutive season in which he has missed more than half the regular season.

This season, he missed two games with a bruised shin and 27 games with a chipped bone and sprain of his right ankle before the knee strain.

Ruland, a five-year NBA veteran and two-time all-star, is the Bullets' leading rebounder (10.7 per game) and second-leading scorer (19-point average). The Bullets particularly notice his absence under the boards.

"The people you use instead have to pick up the slack," Coach Kevin Loughery said. "Now I'm able to see some of the deficiencies and rebounding could be a tremendous one. We have some individuals who are capable of rebounding."

Washington Post staff writer Anthony Cotton also contributed to this report.