Item: Elvin hayes backs in toward the basket near the baseline. Two Buffalo Braves sag on him, and Hayes passes to Phil Chenier alone near the foul line for an uncontested 15-footer.

Item: The Braves rally from a 22-point deficit to cut the Bullet margin to four points early in the fourth quarter. Then Bob Weiss steals two passes and blocks a shot, and suddenly the Bullets are in complete control.

Item: Leonard Gray is not happy. He has just been thrown to the floor by Piston center Bob Lanier, yet he is called for a foul. Gray looks very angry. He throws his chewing gum away and scowls. At the other end of the court, he gets his revenge.Piston Howard Porter is flat on his back and wondering what hit him! It was Gray's right elbow. No harm, no foul. Gray is smiling again.

And smiling also are Dick Motta, the coach, Bob Ferry, the general manager, and Abe Pollin, the owner. After a rocky start they had been wondering about the future of their basketball team.

But now, there is talk once again about an NBA championship banner hanging from the Capital Centre rafters. Oh, what a lovely turnaround.

This is the same team that lost six of eight in the preseason, then four of its first five and 17 of its first 30 games in the regular season under Motta.

But since those early depressing days -- "Yes, I was very worried," Motta admits now -- the Bullets have pulled themselves up by their laces to put together one eight-game winning streak and 20 victories in their last 27 games. They lead the NBA's tough Central Division by one game over Houston, 2 1/2 over Cleveland.

Says Motta, "I like this team now, I'm very pleased with them. I like their attitude, and I like what they're doing out there. We're still not there, but what a lot of people don't realize is that we've got six players on this team who were not here a year ago. That's half the basketball team.

"It's funny. Early in the year, people were saying we were old, we were over the hill, that we had lost our confidence. You don't hear that much now. I believe we're new, we're young and I don't see a lack of confidence. This is a good basketball team, and it's going to get better."

When Motta took over as head coach last spring, he said he believed he had enough talent to challenge for an NBA title.

"We had the best draft in the history of the team," said Ferry, referrig to first-round choices Larry Wright and Mitch Kupchak, both now making significant contributions to the team.

At the beginning, the nucleus of Dave Bing, Phil Chenier, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld seemed solid enough. Leonard Robinson, Motta and everyone else thought, was a budding superstar and Kevin Grevey and Nick Weatherspoon could provide steady firepower off the bench.

But those early good vibrations were an illusion. There was bad news in training camp when Motta realized that Jimmy Jones, the man he was counting on for a solid 20 minutes a game as a third guard, could not play on a wounded knee.

And then, as those early games rolled past, it became obvious there were other problems. Robinson, though a super talent, simply was not fitting into the offensive scheme Motta had in mind.

"Robinson and Elvin just weren't playing that well together," Motta said. "It was like fitting two squares into a round hole."

And Bing wasn't doing the job. He was having difficulty bringing the ball up, he was committing far too many turnovers and his defense left much to be desired.

"I think Dave Bing is one of the all-time greats," no less an authority than Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said the other day, "but it's obvious he's lost a little."

That was also obvious to Motta and Ferry right from the start.

"We just weren't hitting on all gears," Ferry said. "We were playing at an ugly speed. We weren't running, we had turnovers, there was no rhythm, no style. I made a few trips with the club and it became more and more apparent we had problems. Yes, I got very concerned."

Ferry headed for the telephone. "I started looking for guards right away," he said. "I had a very serious conversation with the Nets about Tiny Archibald. But if we made that deal, we felt it would really hurt Larry Wright's development, so we backed off.

"I probably could have made 50 different deals, but they all would have been bad deals. You can't afford to panic. When you're losing, it's tough to be patient. And let's face it, we got lucky, too. I this business luck means an awful lot."

Wright helped himself with strong back-to-back performances against Boston early in November, and when the veteran Weiss came aboard two weeks later and began playing himself into shape -- and the lineup -- the crisis eased somewhat.

On Dec. 13 a sulking Nick Weatherspoon went to Seattle for Gray, a strong rebounder, an excellent passer, a tough defensive player and, best of all, a forcer.

On Jan. 14, Motta made another major move. He benched Bing and started Wright at the playmaking guard position. The Bullets went on a tear, winning their next eight games.

They were running, the ball was coming up court quickly, the turnovers were cut down, and the Bullets seemed to be playing with zest and enthusiasm.

"It wasn't all Bing's fault," Motta says now. "But when you're floundering and you think, 'Hey, we might not make the playoffs if we stay like this,' well, you have to make a change."

Adds Ferry, "it's hard to tell if their play was improved because of the style of the new player Wright or the scheduling. When we made the change, we also went through a period where we had games we could win. But Larry did one hell of job.

"One of the reasons I liked him in college was that he was an offensive player, but he got other people involved first. I think subconciously, players work harder when they know that someone with the ball is looking out for them more than he is for himself."

Still, Ferry was shopping for more help at the position. On Jan. 20, he sent Robinson to Atlanta for guard Tom Henderson and a first-round draft choice. So far, it's been a steal for the Bullets.

Henderson is also the unselfish type, a solid defensive player, a decent shooter and a regular terror on the fast break. He has started the last four games.

"We've now got great flexibility and versatility with out guards," said Ferry. "Any two guys we put out there can complement each other."

At the small forward, Grevey and Gray are splitting time with marvelous results, some 15 points and eight rebounds a game from the position.

Kupchak is a more-than-adequate replacement anywhere on the front line."He gets better in every game he plays," said Ferry.

And all the while, Hayes, Unseld and Chenier remain the solid nucleus.

Hayes, a 44 per cent career shooter, is driving more, averaging more than 50 per cent from the field and enjoying his best season, leading the club in minutes played and 10 different offensive categories.

"He's the key, don't let anybody tell you otherwise," said Piston guard and former Bullet Kevin Porter. "He always was a smart player, but now he's smarter. He does everything for them and I just don't mean scoring. His defense has been great.

"You try and drive up the middle on that team and there's Wes. And if you get by him, Elvin's right there smacking your shot away. You get anywhere near the baseline, and watch out for E."

And all around the NBA, the word is also spreading to watch out for the Bullets.

"Right now, I'd say they're one of the best three or four teams in the league," said Detroit coach Herb Brown.

"They are going to be very tough in the playoffs," added Laker coach Jerry West. "They'll have as good a shot as anybody to win that championship."

That is the kind of talk Ferry likes to hear.

"You know," he said, "I was in a bar talking to a guy a couple of days ago and I told him this was the first time in a long time I'm excited about the team to the point where I'd pay to see them play.

"Earlier this year, I was afraid I'd have to pay."