Paul Silas, the resident enforcer for the Denver Nuggets, paid perhaps his ultimate compliment to the Washington Bullets.
"They come out to really bang," he said after the Nuggets and Bullets collided last week. "Wes (Unseld) was always a banger. I never saw E (Elvin Hayes) so physical. You can't control (Mitch) Kupchak, and Leonard Gray is just looking to hit somebody."
Silas' comments point up one of the biggest differences between the current Bullet team and last year's edition. Opponents' scouting reports used to say the Bullets could be pushed around. Now they say to watch out for bruised ribs and scraped knees when Washington comes to town.
"We are a tough team now, and I really feel good about that," said assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "I couldn't say that about us last year.
"We don't back down to anyone. Teams know now that if they bang Phil Chenier around they'll have to answer to somebody. That makes a difference. Toughness lets other teams know right away that they are in for a long night when they play you. That helps you win games."
The Bullets lacked that toughness last year. "It just wasn't in our personalities to play that way," Bickerstaff said. "You can't teach somebody to be tough. You're born with it, or without it. It's all in the personnel."
The personnel has changed this year.
The new people are rookies Mitch Kupchak and Larry Wright, whom the Bullets drafted, and Tom Henderson and Leonard Gray, whom they acquired in trades for Leonard Robinson and Nick Weatherspoon, respectively.And there's Kevin Grevey, who didn't play much last year, and a much rougher Elvin Hayes.
"In order to win in this league, you have to have somebody to do the dirty work for your superstars," Bickerstaff said. "We have all kinds of people to do that now, and the important thing is that the superstars know it and are playing better because of it."
The dirty work Bickerstaff speaks of is setting picks, scrapping after loose balls, playing aggressive defense, hitting the offensive boards and hustling.
"We're 80 per cent better than last year in intensity," Bickerstaff said. "We're coming up with more loose balls and everything and that is because we aren't afraid to stick our heads in there."
The intensity seems to show off the court, too. An airline employee watched the Bullets as they left Portland.
"Man, those guys look mean," he said. "I'm glad they are going and not coming."