Wilkins, the No. 2 scorer in the league this season, was only 3 for 13 in the first half, then went wild in the second half to lead the Hawks to a 110-94 victory over stubborn Indiana.
The second game of the best-of-five first-round series will be played Sunday night, also at Atlanta.
With Wilkins having trouble finding the basket, the Hawks led by only 54-51 at halftime. But Wilkins scored 12 of Atlanta's 21 points in the third quarter, then broke it open with 15 in the last quarter and finished with 35 points.
The 6-foot 7-inch forward made 9 of his 10 field goal attempts in the second half, making three shots in a row to close out the third quarter with the Hawks ahead, 75-67.
Although they were only 3-3 against Indiana during the regular season, the Hawks' 57-25 record was the best in their history.
The Hawks were knocked out in the second round of last season's playoffs by Boston. The Pacers, meanwhile, are making their first playoff appearance since 1981.
"I was pressing in the first half," Wilkins told the Associated Press. "I was a little tight. I was trying to do too much too soon. I just relaxed in the second half and let it happen."
Although he scored 21 points and had 13 points after missing the last five games of the season, Barkley obviously favored his ailing ankle. In the last minute, he was called for a charging foul and missed a three-pointer.
Erving made just 5 of 18 shots.
It took Jack Sikma to turn the tide for the Bucks in the series opener. He scored 11 of his 17 points and grabbed 6 of his 11 rebounds in the fourth quarter to keep the Bucks from losing.
Sikma's two free throws with 53 seconds left put Milwaukee ahead, 106-104. Then came the charging call on Barkley, a turnover by Milwaukee's John Lucas and a poor inbounds pass by the 76ers' Andrew Toney. Before Barkley missed the three-point try, Dudley Bradley made one of two free throws for the 107-104 score.
But in the opener at Pontiac, Mich., Rick Mahorn made more baskets than the Bullet center. While Mahorn was going 4 for 6, Malone was only 3 for 17.
Malone by no means was the only cold shooter for the Bullets. The team made only 33 of 88 for 37.5%. That would have been good shooting in the NBA 40 years ago.
Isiah Thomas sparked the Pistons, although he is playing on a sore knee. He had 34 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists.
Despite their terrible shooting, the Bullets trailed by only 73-71 with a minute left in the third quarter. Thomas and Adrian Dantley led a spirited rally to get the Pistons in front by 10.
Another Bullet spurt cut the lead to 89-85, but Washington went 4 1/2 minutes without scoring, and it was over.
Game 2 of the series will be at Memorial Coliseum Sunday.
Ralph Sampson, still recovering from a knee injury, had 23 points for the Rockets, who became the only team to win on the road in opening games of the playoffs.
The Rockets, the defending Western Conference champions who are seeded sixth this season, never trailed after taking a 14-point lead in the second quarter.