The Washington Bullets, who spent the first weeks of the season under new coach Dick Motta by trying to keep out of the cellar, ended their most difficult West Coast road trip Friday night in first place.
In the midst of a three-day break for Sunday's All-Star game here, the Bullets lead the Central Division by one game over Houston and two over Cleveland and San Antonio.
Winning three of six games on their road current swing, the Bullets are 30-22, and have, a Tuesday date in Buffalo before returning to Capital Centre Wednesday night to play Boston.
"For the most part I think we are playing well," said guard Phil Chenier, who with Elvin Hayes is one of two Bullets in the All-Star Game, "We are doing some smart things out there," Chenier added. "Staying healthy is important and we still have to improve."
Chenier, like Motta, feels San Antonio ultimately could cause the Bullets more trouble than either Cleveland or Houston.
"Right now the momentum is swinging toward us and San Antonio," Chenier said.
"Cleveland has some injuries and isn't playing with the force they did at this time last year. Houston is hanging in, but San Antonio has been beating the good teams and beating them away from home," Chenier added.
The just-completed six-game trip to the West revealed how good the Bullets can be.
The last time they made that trip, in November, they lost the first five before beating Atlanta on the way home.
They lost the opener this time in Denver but came back with victories in both Portland and Seattle.
Rick Barry exploded for 42 points and the Golden State Warriors, who are starting to come around, bombed the Bullets in the fourth game.
Washington then went to Phoenix and despite trailing by 12 points with 4 1/2 minutes to play, stormed back to win by six.
They appeared to run out of gas in Kansas City Friday night, losing, 120-106.
That made the Bullets 3-3 on the trip."I was hoping to be able to play .500 on the trip, but if we would have won only two games I would have been satisfied," Motta said.
The Bullets have won 17 of their last 22 games and seven of their last 10 on the road.
When play begins again Tuesday, after the All-star Game in Buffalo, they will have 11 more road games left and 18 at Capital Centre.
"We can just go on home now and put a nice little run together," Hayes said.
The Bullets have two games left with the Spurs, one at Capital Centre and one in San Antonio. They also have two left with the Cavaliers, at home and away and play Houston one more time, at Capital Centre.
Under the new NBA playoff format adopted this year, the division winner in each conference makes it into the playoffs and then the teams with the next four best records in the conference, regardless of division, also make it.
In each playoff series, the team with the best regular season winning percentage will get the home court advantage.
According to Chenier there are four key people for the Bullets. The offense is geared for him and Hayes and both have played well practically all season, as demonstrated by their selection to the all-star team.
"The keys are Tom (Henderson), Larry (Wright), Leonard (Gray) and Wes (Unseld)," Chenier said.
"Tommy and Larry are doing a real good job of running the team and they aren't that worried about scoring. They are both so quick that it is tough for most teams to contain them.
"Wes has been playing a lot better lately because he is taking his shot when he has it now instead of passing it up, as he was doing," Chenier said.
Another important player for the Bullets has been Mitch Kupchak, who proved on the trip that he can play small forward as well as center and big forward.
Gray and Kevin Grevey have been having their problems at the small forward spot lately and Motta has been going to Kupchak more at that position. The day may not be too far off when Motta starts a front line of Hayes, Unseld and Kupchak.
"We're getting good," Motta observed.