The Washington Bullets begin what coach Dick Motta calls "the most critical stretch of the season" Wednesday night when they play the Denver Nuggets in the first game of a seven-contest road trip.

"This is the real test," Motta said. "We'll know a lot more about this team when it's all over. I don't think there's a tougher trip in the league than this one."

After they face the Nuggets at McNichols Arena, the Bullets will play in Seattle Friday, in Portland Saturday, at Golden State Tuesday, in Phoenix Feb. 10, in Kansas City Feb. 11 and then, after a three-day break for the all-star game in Milwaukee, will play in Baffalo Feb. 15.

The Bullets will be home again Feb. 16 when they meet the Boston Celtics.

The last time they went west, it was a disaster. The trip was in November after they had won two in a row at home to even their record at 7-7.

Washington lost in Denver and then fell to Phoenix, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles before saving some face with a victory in Atlanta.

That game with the Hawks Dec. 2 was for last place in the Central Division. The Bullets won easily to escape the cellar.

Now, two months later, Wshington is on top of its division and is playing as well as any team in the NBA. The Bullets have won eight games in a row and 14 to 16. They have won four straight on the road.

Obviously, Washington isn't the same bunch it was earlier in the season.

"Confidence" is the difference, assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "And the new guys we got have really, really helped."

The "new guys" are Lenoard Gray, acquired from Seattle for Nick Weatherspoon, and Tom Henderson, obtained from Atlanta for Leonard Robinson.

The Bullets are 17-6 since Gray arrived and 6-0 with Henderson in uniform.

Weatherspoon and Robinson were the two most disgruntled Bullets. Both are offensive-minded players who had difficulty fitting in with what Motta wanted.

Gray and Henderson fit perfectly. Both are team players.

With Robinson gone, the Bullets are able to run better. Robinson average nine rebounds a game, but with rebounders like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unself, he was expendable. With three big rebounders playing at the same time, the Bullets had problems with the fast break.

Now, Unseld and Hayes are pulling down as many rebounds between them as they previously totaled with Robinson's help, and the new small forwards, Kevin Grevey and Gray, are getting downcourt quicker.

In Robinson's last four games, Unseld had seven, seven, eight and eight rebounds, he has grabbed 11, 12, 12, 15 and 17 in the last four contests.

Larry Wright replaced Dave Bing as the team's playmaker eight games ago, when the winning streak started.

Motta gave the Bullets Monday off but had them work out today at Bowie State before leaving for Denver.

Grevey still has a painful hip pointer go to with his sprained ankle, and Wright had a thigh bruise. Both are expected to start against the Nuggets.

Denver has the best record in the NBA, but has lost two of its last three games at home. The Neggets are led by three all-stars, David Thompson, Bobby Jones and Dan Issel.

A Washington victory, in Denver would equal the Bullet's longest all-time winning streak, but, win or lose, Motta can now say something about the Washington Bullets that he couldn't say the last time they went West:

"We are a good basketball team."