There was a reason Cliff Robinson and Jeff Malone scored career playoff highs against the Philadelphia 76ers last night, and his name is Jeff Ruland.

"His playing changes [the game] tremendously," said Robinson, who had 31 points, one fewer than Malone. "When Jeff [Ruland] is down low, he creates problems for Philadelphia. Without him in there, they double- or triple-team me."

The Bullets, who have played without Ruland since March 22, have at least one more game -- Sunday in Philadelphia, when the five-game series will be decided.

Ruland underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on March 31. Last night, his impact was illustrated vividly during his first minute of play late in the first quarter.

Robinson, on the left side of the court, passed to Ruland in the post. Immediately, the 76ers swarmed to cover Ruland. Instinctively, he passed the ball back to an open Robinson for one of his easiest baskets of the night.

It was not the kind of play that 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, shot blocker extraordinaire, is capable of making at this stage in his career. He has one assist in four playoff games.

Ruland's assist was the first of five, high for the team. He also had 13 points, seven rebounds and only one turnover in 26 minutes. Combined with Bol, Washington's centers scored 20 points and had 19 rebounds.

Ruland, sitting at his locker with a large ice pack on the left knee, said his surgeon told him Monday he probably would be able to play 20 to 25 minutes tonight. Two days earlier, he said, his left leg tested stronger than his right in a Cybex test. His knee was sore, but he was not tired, Ruland said.

"It's great to be back," he said. "I worked hard to come back . . . Working to get to be able to play. That was the hardest part. It's easier to play than do therapy . . . I like to bang, and I can't bang long distance."

Ruland's numbers were meaningful but not as significant as some other numbers for which he was partially responsible. Malone and Robinson shot 40 and 44 percent, respectively, in the first three games of this series; last night they were a combined 27 for 51 (53 percent).

Gene Shue still was coach the last game Ruland played; this was Kevin Loughery's first chance to evaluate his players with the foundation of the team in the lineup.

"He's a guy they have to be tremendously concerned about, and he's the best passer on the team, other than Gus [Williams]," Loughery said. "An excellent player makes his teammates look better, and that's what he does.

"It's hard to pinpoint the one aspect of his game [that stood out last night]. But it's the first game we've outrebounded them. The other aspect is his passing.

"[With Ruland out], our guys were forced to do some things they're not totally comfortable with," Loughery added. "The biggest thing is being able to evaluate the team with Jeff in the lineup. He make guys look better, and it puts them in the roles you have them here for."

One of the highlights of the evening was Ruland banging bodies with 263-pound Charles Barkley, who a day earlier took a "so what?" attitude about the possibility of Ruland returning.

"He's a great player," Ruland said. "But he's young and that's the way he feels. He's entitled to his opinion.

"We'll see him Sunday."