By getting tough as much as playing tough, the Washington Bullets -- with Jeff Ruland back in action -- pushed their first-round NBA playoff series to a fifth and deciding game with a bruising 116-111 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last night before 12,588 at Capital Centre.

As befitting their biggest victory of the season, the Bullets got big performances from a number of sources.

Guard Jeff Malone and forward Cliff Robinson had career playoff highs with 32 and 31 points, respectively. Ruland scored 13 points, had seven rebounds and passed off for a team-high five assists in 26 minutes. And then there was reserve guard Dudley Bradley, who kept Washington in the game with one sparkling play after another.

Game 5 will be played Sunday at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. But there probably wouldn't be a fifth game if not for the Bullets' inspired physical play last night.

With 6:44 remaining, 76ers forward Charles Barkley, who had manhandled Washington in the opening three games of the series with his power and strength, was heading toward the basket for what appeared to be a crushing fast-break dunk.

Instead, Barkley was deposited upon the Capital Centre floor, having been fouled by Bradley. The play typified the game. Over the course of the evening, the Bullets gave no ground to the 76ers, who had outrebounded them by 166-106 entering Game 4. For the first time in the best-of-five series, the Bullets made a dent into that deficit, outrebounding Philadelphia, 44-40.

Part of the reason was the return of Ruland three weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Last night, the 6-foot-11, 275-pound center/forward more than made his presence felt.

"This is what I do for a living," said Ruland. "I worked hard to get back. . . . Playing is easier than therapy."

For the Bullets, there were many therapeutic aspects to Ruland's play. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the team captain grabbed a rebound, then hit Malone with a pass that led to a pair of free throws. What was noteworthy about the play was that Ruland ably screened out Barkley to get the basketball, then ignited a fast break with his long pass to the streaking guard.

"Moses [Malone, the 76ers' injured center] and Ruland, it's like two elks locking horns," said Philadelphia forward Julius Erving. "Seeing Ruland out there without seeing Moses just didn't seem fair."

Equity may be just around the corner, however. According to Philadelphia Coach Matt Guokas, Malone, who missed the last seven regular season games and the first four playoff games because of a broken bone beneath his right eye, will practice with the team Saturday. "After that," he said, "we'll just have to wait and see."

Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery was more intent on savoring what he saw last night. "This had to be the most exciting game of the series thus far," he said. "It was just a great ballgame. Jeff [Ruland] made a big difference, Malone shot great all night, Cliff kept us in it all game. Just a tremendous effort on everybody's part."

The game was indeed filled with a number of unlikely occurrences. In the first half, the Bullets' Dan Roundfield missed a free throw when he was distracted by an inadvertent blast from the horn at the official scorer's table. The regular operator was absent because of Passover.

There also were a pair of technicals -- one against Loughery, another against Barkley -- within a minute of each other in the second period. It seemed like at least one more would be called after Bradley knocked down Barkley. After getting up off the floor, the forward started to go after the Washington guard like a raging bull before being restrained by a host of bodies.

"My first thought was to take a step back," said Bradley. "But I didn't think he really wanted to come after me. There's no way those people could've stopped him if he wanted to get me. But I did feel more comfortable with my teammates around."

That's not quite the exact meaning of "team play," but when the squads actually got into playing, there was more than enough of that commodity to go around. As in the previous two games, the Bullets seemed to be in control of the action, taking a 109-103 lead with 4:14 left in the game. That margin had been borne of some outstanding shooting from Malone (who finished 12 for 24 from the field) in the latter portions of the game.

This came after Robinson had gotten the Bullets off to a good start by scoring 21 points in the opening half, an effort that marked a measure of absolution for an 11-point, two-rebound, foul-plagued effort in Game 3.

"I wasn't a factor in the last game; I thought I let my teammates down," said Robinson. "I didn't want my last game of the season to be one where I didn't give my all."

That wasn't the case, but a short time later it began to look as if Washington would be eliminated nevertheless. Spurred by guard Maurice Cheeks (a team-high 30 points), the 76ers came back to tie the game with 2:52 left, then moved in front, 111-109, on two free throws by Cheeks with 1:31 to play.

"We're playing a good team, so you know they're gonna make a run," said Loughery. "We have to be able to ward it off, though. We didn't do that in Games 2 and 3."

Said Cheeks: "I thought we had control of the game then. If not that, then the momentum. I thought things would go our way."

Now placed in the position of having to come back, not ward off, the Bullets began to get a number of breaks that had eluded them throughout the game as well as the series. Moving on a fast break, Malone had a pass deflected by Barkley but it went into the hands of Ruland, who threw in a layup and was fouled by Bobby Jones.

The fifth-year player missed the free throw that could have put the 76ers ahead, but Bradley alertly knocked the rebound out of bounds off the leg of Barkley. Nine seconds later, Malone scored on a driving jumper from the lane that bounced tantalizing on the rim before settling into the hoop.

"I didn't care who was on me," he said. "I was going to the basket. I got the shot I wanted."

The 76ers set up the shot they wanted, but Barkley (22 points, 15 rebounds) missed a jumper, as did Julius Erving (25 points) from the top of the key. The retrieve was gathered in by Bradley, who made one of two foul shots for a 114-111 lead with 22 seconds to play.

After a timeout, Philadelphia put the ball into Barkley's hands, but his game-tying three-point attempt with 10 seconds left went awry, the ball going into Robinson's hands. The forward was fouled two seconds later and went to the line with an opportunity to ice the game.

Robinson missed both free throws badly but more than saved face by grabbing the second rebound and dunking the ball for the game's final points.

"I did it on purpose," he joked after the game. "I was concentrating on the shots but my reaction was to go after the second one, especially after I saw how hard the first one hit."

That wasn't the only hard hitting going on. As a result, Robinson and his teammates will have a chance Sunday to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1981.

"Since I've been here, I've told the players if we can just stay even on the boards we'd have an equal or good chance to win," said Loughery. "Tonight, that's what we were able to do. . . . I think everybody dug down way inside. That's what it'll take in Philly."