If the Washington Bullets are going to stay in the race for an NBA playoff spot, they will have to stay in contact with the other teams in the Eastern Conference. With just about everyone in the Central Division in the hunt, Washington will have to beat Atlantic Division rivals such as the Philadelphia 76ers, their opponents tonight at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

The Bullets, 12-21 after their 117-103 loss Monday night in Chicago, are ninth in the overall conference standings, and the top eight teams in the conference make the playoffs. Normally, worrying about the playoffs less than halfway through the season would be premature, but even Cleveland, the last-place team in the Central, is markedly improved over last season.

Washington, however, also has picked up its play in the six games under Coach Wes Unseld. And to be fair, Chicago hit on 76 percent of its shots in the third quarter in building the nine-point lead Washington couldn't overcome. Still, Washington has yet to win a road game under Unseld, and now tries to take the opportunity in its first visit this season to the Spectrum.

It also will be Bullets guard Steve Colter's first game against the 76ers since being waived by Philadelphia late in training camp.

All discussion on Philadelphia begins with forward Charles Barkley, third in the league in scoring at 28.8 points a game. He's also third in field goal percentage, 58.2 percent, and fourth in rebounding at 11.3 per game. It should go without saying that Barkley is the only 6-foot-4 (he is not 6-6 as advertised) player able to haul in that many rebounds.

The 76ers, at 18-17, are also trying new combinations, having lost by 14 to the New York Knicks Saturday night. They traded within their division over the weekend, sending center Tim McCormick and forward Roy Hinson to the New Jersey Nets for center Mike Gminski and forward Ben Coleman. Coleman, a former University of Maryland athlete, played sparingly for New Jersey last season after two seasons in Europe, but this season had provided important help for fellow former Terrapin Buck Williams in the Nets front court, scoring and rebounding.

Gminski scored just under 17 points for the Nets this season before being dealt, but it remains to be seen how effective he can be sharing court time with Barkley.

Tonight's is the first of three games between the Bullets and 76ers in the next six days. The teams will play Sunday afternoon at the Capital Centre, then again Monday night at the Centre at 7:30 in the makeup of the game snowed out Nov. 11. Tickets for the original game will be valid.

Hawks 106, Bulls 94:

In Atlanta, Dominique Wilkins scored 41 points last night, including an Omni-record 24 in the first quarter, to lead the Hawks past Chicago.

Michael Jordan had 38 points for the Bulls. The Hawks have won 16 of 17 home games. Their only loss was on Nov. 10 to Chicago.

Wilkins' first-period scoring spree broke the Omni record of 22 points, set in 1975 by Buffalo's Bob McAdoo and tied in 1978 by Atlanta's John Drew. It also helped the Hawks take a 37-22 lead, which they extended to 41-24 in the opening minutes of the second quarter.

Spurs 110, Bucks 104:

Frank Brickowski scored seven of his 26 points in the final two minutes to lead the Spurs to a come-from-behind victory in San Antonio. The victory ended the Spurs' four-game losing streak.

Terry Cummings had 24 points for Milwaukee, which led by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter. Randy Breuer added 17 before leaving in the third quarter with a rib injury.

Kings 107, Rockets 104:

Reggie Theus made two free throws with eight seconds left to assure the Kings' victory in Sacramento, Calif.

LaSalle Thompson's 16-foot jumper with 17 seconds remaining gave Sacramento a 105-103 lead. With nine seconds to go, Houston had a chance to tie, but Joe Barry Carroll made one of two free throws. Purvis Short missed a three-point shot with three seconds left.

Reserve Mike McGee led the Kings with 28 points. Akeem Olajuwon had 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Rockets. Olajuwon also had a season-high eight blocked shots, including seven in the third quarter to establish an Arco Arena record. It also was the most blocked shots ever by an opposing player against Sacramento.

Mavericks 120, Trail Blazers 116:

Mark Aguirre scored 34 points, including three free throws in the game's final 10 seconds, and Dallas won in Portland, Ore.

Sam Perkins scored 13 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter as the Mavericks posted their 10th victory in 13 games. Dallas has an 11-9 road record, making it one of five NBA teams with a winning mark away from home.

Clyde Drexler had 27 points and Jerome Kersey 20 for Portland.