During Manute Bol's two years in the United States, his exposure to the National Basketball Association playoffs has come courtesy of a television screen, but he knows full well the difference in style of play during the postseason.

"Tough, very tough," said the Bullets' 7-foot-7 rookie center, who will get first-hand experience tonight in Philadelphia when the Bullets meet the 76ers at 7:30 p.m. in the first game of their best-of-five opening-round series.

"No one tells me much about them, but the playoffs look very tough," he said. "Everyone looks like they play harder and more aggressive."

Two of the NBA's most aggressive players are not expected to play tonight. Jeff Ruland most likely will miss the entire series while he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery he underwent two weeks ago. Philadelphia center Moses Malone is expected to miss at least the first two games because of a broken bone under his right eye.

For Washington guard Gus Williams, who has participated in 94 postseason games, the playoffs are the best part of the year.

"This is really what it's all about," he said. "The intensity of play is greater, and everyone, like fans, is more involved. If you're a performer, you like to see the seats full and you like to see people watching you and enjoying what you're doing."

Just how much -- and for how long -- fans of Williams and the rest of the Bullets will get to watch and enjoy their team in the playoffs depends on Washington's ability to provide the physical toughness Bol has only seen from afar.

Though the Bullets enter the series as underdogs, the difference between the two teams could be as minute as a tip-in here or a brutish power move there.

The Bullets' performance in two categories ultimately may determine the success of their quest to advance beyond the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1981-82 season.

The first is rebounding. Although the 76ers are the league's smallest team in height, statistically they were the best rebounding team. Forward Charles Barkley and Malone were in the top five individually.

"That is a very big factor," Washington Coach Kevin Loughery said yesterday. "We need to get all five of our guys active on the boards."

The Bullets finished the regular season 21st overall in rebounding, but that does not mean they won't have a chance against the 76ers. Said Loughery: "A lot of times, a team will get a lot of rebounds but is unable to finish it off by scoring. We can get outrebounded and win, but we would need to make a high percentage of our shots from the field to do it."

That could be the other pivotal factor. Guard Jeff Malone shot 48 percent from the floor this season, predominantly from long distance, but stumbled late in the season. In the regular-season finale against the 76ers, Malone was six for 20 from the field. In the previous game, a two-point loss to Chicago, he missed three very makable shots in the final two minutes of the game.

"I'm a little concerned about it, but I'm not scared or anything," he said. "If I were a rookie, maybe I would be. But I know what I can do; I'm not gonna jump off any buildings."

Since a 98-97 victory over the 76ers last Sunday at Capital Centre that ensured an opening series against the Atlantic Division runner-up, the Bullets have been anything but nervous. They don't think they need luck to win this series; they believe they can play with and beat the 76ers.

"They're a great team, they're tough, but I haven't seen anything that they could do that would just kill our chances," said Loughery.

Part of that confidence is based on preparation. After spending close to a week breaking down films for tendencies, the Bullets have developed strategies for nearly every situation, including the area of the court to which Bol should tip the ball during the opening center jump.

Most of the Bullets' planning is concerned with the defensive end of the floor, namely how to approach the combination of Moses Malone and Barkley. Malone sat out the last seven regular-season games because of his eye injury, but the Bullets will not believe he is out until they see him sitting on the bench for the opening tipoff.

Even if Malone does not play, they still have to contend with Barkley, who dominated play in the last two regular-season meetings between Washington and Philadelphia. The 76ers' Malone missed both those games because of injury.

According to the Bullets' coaches, much of the havoc Barkley creates comes as a result of the power forward's forays into the middle of the court, where he draws a crowd and dishes the ball off for an assist or merely bulls his way through opponents for baskets, drawing fouls in the process. The Bullets will try to counteract that by first conceding the outside jump shot to Barkley, then by making him dribble toward the sideline whenever he tries to move inside.

The responsibility for trying to guide Barkley into more uncomfortable territory initially will fall upon Charles Jones. "I've just got to concentrate on nothing but him," Jones said. "I want to stop him from getting no more than five offensive rebounds a game; I just have to keep my body in his way."

Should that fail, an alternate scenario is offered by Bullets assistant coach Bill Blair. "Perhaps we can do something like a box-and-one defense against him," he said. "Maybe you even have to concede him something like 30 points and 15 rebounds. That way, you're telling the other [76ers] players, 'Okay, let's see what you can do.' "