This was a day of rest and reflection for the Washington Bullets, who could finally take the time to look back on the first quarter of this year's NBA schedule and marvel at how much they're improved since the season's early games.
From a floundering club hindered by injures, an unhappy superstar and a porous defense, the Bullets have been transformed into what coach Dick Motta says "is one of the league's three or four best clubs. We are in that elite class now like I thought we would be.
If Motta wasn't a believer in this team before, he became one during the last weekend when the Bullets won three games in three nights in three cities. And none of their opponents was able to score more than 100 points, a rarity in this run-and-gun profession.
The Bullet's five-game winning streak, part of an impressive stretch of nine victories in their last 10 games, has moved them into first place in the Central Divison, which has become the most competitive in the NBA. Four of those victories have been on the road where the club was having most of its early season difficulties.
Washington's 13-7 record is fourth best in the league, ranking behind only Portland, Philadelphia and Denver. But only Portland and Philadelphia have lost fewer games.
If to such a miserable start, their current heroics wouldn't be quite so dramatic. The Bullets were expected to be this good if offseason acquisition Bob Dandridge blended in. He had. But that still didn't prevent the club from stumbling out of the blocks like a drunken sprinter.
Now those early blowouts at New York, Indiana and Kansas City have become blurred memories in the wake of what the Bullets have done lately, starting with a victory over Seattle Nov. 15.
"I made myself be patient with this team because I was convinced we'd come around," said Motta, who will be coaching against is old club, the Chicago Bulls. Tuesday night at 8:30 (EST) in Chicago arena. "We've always had the tools; it was just a matter of knowing how to use them."
The turnabout can be credited to a number of reasons, all about equally important.
The most obvious are the emergence of Dandridge, the improved play of Elvin Hayes and the decision to start Kevin Grevey at guard. But Motta's emphasis on the running game, Phil Chenier's improved health, productive reserves and a more solid defense also have been key contributions.
Hayes has changed from an unhappy player who figured he was going to be traded to a relaxed, contented person who say he's never enjoyed basketball more.
The idea of trading him, which the club was considering more seriously than at any other point in his six years in Washington, has been discarded. And Hayes wants to stay, because he now can see how hthe Bullet's roster shuffling the last two seasons is making his basketball life much easier.
Hayes no longer is forcing shots or shouldering all the scoring burden. He has accepted Dandridge as an equal and he is able to concentrate on rebounding and defense while others take up the offensive slack.
As a result, the Bullets have become what seemed impossible a year ago - a balanced scorinbg team that burns any opponent who still thinks only Hayes and Chenier will produce the bulk of the points.
During the last 10 games, for example, six players have averaged in double figures: Hayes (19.6). Dandridge (18.1), Mitch Kupchak (17.1). Grevey (16.4), Chenier (15.1), and Tom Henderson (11.5). In this stretch each has averaged at least 10 shots a game, ranging from Hayes' 17 to Henderson's 10, and all except Henderson and Grevey have led the club in scoring in at least one contest.
"I'm not getting double-teamed anymore," said Hayes. "If I do, then others are scoring. Bobby and I are working so well together that I have freedom of movement I've never had before.
"My role is well defined now. I rebound, clog the middle on defense and work with with Dandridge. There is no confusion. And it's hard to stop our balanced scoring."
Once Hayes was straightened out, Motta was able to take care of the other major early season problems: backcourt defense, Benching Larry Wright and replacing him with Grevey was a difficult decision, because Motta didn't want to kill Wright's impish spirit. But he was convinced the change was the only way to cut down on opponents' point production and allow Henderson to cover ball-handling guards, which he prefers to do.
"I know people expected me to put in Phil and not Kevin," said Motta. "But Kevin was playing better and I had a good feeling about him. And now he's improving every game."
Grevey, who had never played guard before this season, had taken to his new position so well that Chenier, who is feeling more comfortable in the share-the-ball offense and is shooting like Chenier of old, can't regain his starting spot.
The two guards, who alternate by quarters, are averaging a combined 35.5 points during the last 10 games and are getting off 27 shots a contest. They have been a significant one-two punch, with Grevey usually having hot first periods and Vhehier picking up for him coming off the bench.
Chenier's production as a reserve, coupled with Kupchak's average of 17 points and eight rebounds during the winning streak, really gives Motta seven starters, really gives Motta plays center, his helter-skelter style is a nice contrast to that of starter Wes Unseld, who isn't scoring much but has become a third guard with his passing from the top of the key.
Motta is not hesitant about using 10 men every game, which is allowing him to keep his starters fresh and his running game more active. And it also is keeping the bulk of the team happy.
"This season is so long, you know this is going to end," said Motta. "We'll go through down periods too. But what's important now is that we know how good we can be. We weren't sure before. In the long run, that's going to make us a much touger team to deal with, both home and away."