While the Washington Bullets have been struggling most of the season, coach Dick Notta has kept saying, "We'll get better, we'll get better."
That time, it appears, has arrived.
As the NBA season approaches the halfway mark, the Bullets are in the thick of the battle in the Central Division league and are on their hottest streak of the season, having won eight of their last 10 games.
In those 10 games the Bullets have beaten Houston and Portland, two of the league's outstanding teams, and they have won three of their last four games on the road.
Saturday night's impressive 113-107 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers gave Washington a 21-19 record, putting them 1 1/2 games behind Cleveland and Houston in the division. It is also the first time all season the Bullets have been as many as two games above 500.
The most important figure in the Bullet's surge has been Elvin Hayes.
He is having perhaps his best season and some nights he has carried the Bullets almost by himself.
Most teams play an illegal zone defense against the Bullets, and collapsing all over Hayes. Still, he has been practically unstoppable.
Hayes' biggest point output was 45 points in a four-point Bullet victory over the Kansas City Kings in mid-December. For all-around games, however, few can match his performance against the Bulls in Chicago on Friday. With Chicago alternating Artis Gilmore, Mickey Johnson and Cliff Pondexter on him, Hayes played the entire 48 minutes. He scored 34 points, had 21 rebounds, two steals and blocked four shots.
His teammates and coaches are still talking about that performance.
For the reason, Hayes is shooting 49.3 per cent, by far his best ever. He is averaging 22.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game and has bloced 105 shots.
Hayes has had help of late. Bob Weiss, a master of card tricks and other sleight-of-hand feats, is also a magician at getting the ball to Hayes.
The Bullet's offense is basically geared to produce baskets from two people, Hayes and guard Phil Chenier.
In the past, the best way to stop Chenier was to rough him up and opposing coaches often inserted forwards to manhandle him. That theory is becoming inoperative. Chenier had learned to shoot with people hanging on him. He also has learned how to use the screens of Hayes, Wes Unseld, Leonard Robinson and others to help him avoid being banged around.
Motta feels the time is right to go with rookie guard Larry Wright. He has been the starter for two games now, replacing Dave Bing.
Wright was awful in Chicago Friday, but impressive again Portland.
He got the Bullets off and running and directed them to 42 points in the first quarter, their highest scoring quarter of the season.
There are few guards quick enough to stay with Wright, so he has little trouble scoring. But he has hurt the Bullets occasionally with his defense and with some careless ball-handling.
He is improving, however, and the Bullets need him in the lineup. With him they can run.Without him they are a predictable team that must go to Hayes and Chenier to score. That leaves a lot of people doing a lot of standing around on offense.
It seems odd that an experienced team has to depend on a rookie to lead them, but Wright is no ordinary rookie.
Every coach wants an extension of his personality on the floor, and Wright is as close to that as Motta can hope for.
He carries out his orders to the letter, and is tough, even though he is about as thin as the free-thow line.
It is known that the Bullets have been trying to trade Robinson before the Feb. 1 deadline. But the situation does not appear to be desperate the way the Bullets have played the last 10 games.
One of the more subtle improvements in the team had been the presence of Leonard Gray, acquired from Seattle Dec. 13 in exchanged for Nick Weathespoon. He is a genuine enforcer, something the Bullets have lacked.
Since he was added to the squad, Gray has averaged 15 minutes a game, just over five points andshot 49 per cent from the floor. More important is a team statistic: Since Gray came to Washington, the Bullets have won 11 and lost 6.