The Washington Bullets will reach the halfway point of their NBA season Wednesday night, convinced they are legitimate contenders for the league title if they can only develop a little more court sense between now and April.
"I think we have to get smarter," said Bob Dandridge, who is one of the team's dominant forces after 40 games. "We've lost some games at the end when we haven't responded well to the challenge.
"In the playoffs, we're going to have to win the close ones if we're going to have any success.
Even Wes Unseld, the veteran center who wasn't certain before the season if the team was a championship challenger, says, "We have the potential to be a deciding factor about who wins (the title) or if we do.
"We just need to be more consistent and a little smarter."
The Bullets' inability to pull out most close games, coupled with horrendous foul shooting and repeated letdowns against weaker teams, has prevented them from amassing a better record than the 24-16 mark they will take into Wednesday night's game at Golden State.
They could easily be 28-12 but coach Dick Motta believes the important thing is whether they've profited from their experiences in the first half of the season.
"I think we are playing smarter basketball," he said. "At least I hope we are. I said before the season I thought we were among the elite teams and I think having one of the league's five best records puts us in that class.
"I'm convinced we're going to get better. On the nights we play well, we can stay with anyone, although we certainly wouldn't be favored to win the title right now."
The first half of the season also has shown:
The Bullets finally are ccapable of competing with the Philadelphia 76ers. They've split two games with Philly after finding out that Dandridge can be effective working against Julius Erving.
Dandridge, the team's leading scorer, has given the Bullets the kind of quickness, defense and shooting they need from their small forward to stay in the league's upper echelon.
Elvin Hayes has accepted a reduced role on offense better than many expected. He is shooting and scoring less but says he is happy to share the burden and the spotlight with Dandridge.
The Bullets no longer are a two man offense, depending heavily on Phil Chenier and Hayes for points. In 40 games, those two have been high scorers only 16 times.
Kevin Grevey has made an unexpectedly smooth switch from forward to guard, Unseld has been playing better than last season although his minutes have dropped slightly and Mitch Kupchak is on the verge of becoming a star, but needs to be more consistent. Motta says Kupchak's playing time will increase as the season progresses.
The reserves have emerged as the strongest in Bullet history and may be the reason the club is in first place in the NBA Central Division.
Opponenst are exploiting defensive deficiencies at guard. "It's a concer," admits Motta. "Teams found out early that they could score off our backcourt and we've had trouble changing their minds."
Playmaker Tom Henderson may be the key to the team's fortunes. When he plays well, scoring and making assist, the team usually wins. When he is off, it usually loses.
In discussing the team's problems in close games. Dandridge says he would like to start taking a more active role in the final minutes.
"Early in the season, I thought it best not to do the things that my teammates might not interpret correcly. But they've accepted me now and I think I can do for us what I had to do for Milwaukee in close games - handle the ball and shoot when I had to: And I have confidence in my foul shooting."
It probably would help if the Bullets had a player in addition to Chennier to go to at the end of games. Rivals are double-teaming him. At the same time, they clog up the middle and screen off Hayes from getting the ball.
But it's not only the Bullet's shooting that has hurt them in these games. Poor ball-handling and difficulty in running smooth out-of-bounds plays also have been problems contending teams normally handle with ease.
The same could be said about their foul shooting. Only four other clubs have attempted more foul shots than Washington. Yet the Bullets are by far the league's worst free-throw shooting team. In all except seven games, they've had more foul shots than their opponents (five of those were road contests) but have lost at least four times because they couldn't convert free throws into points!
"Can you believe that we have on of the most physical teams around and then we can't take advantage of it at the foul line?" said Motta after one particularly horrible free-throw-shooting demonstration.
Certainly, if the Bullets are to take full advantage of their rugged front line and their ability to get the ball inside on offse, they're going to have to hit foul shots more consistently.
"I like how we are getting the ball inside," Motta said. "We are running our offense well and moving the ball well. And our forwards are working so well together."
He isn't always so complimentary about the team's defense. You can see him cringe on the bench when one of his players fails to dive after a loose ball, especially his guards. The Bullets aren't a scrappy club, unless Kupchak is in the game.
Henderson, however, can turn the frown to a smile when he performs efficiently on offense. Motta says he and his playmaker are understanding each other better all the time, which is making both of their jobs easier.
Of Henderson's 12 best games, the Bullets won 11. In their 24 victories, he has averaged 14 points and six assists. In their 16 defeats, his numbers are 11 and four.
He is the player who gets the Bullets running. He is more tentative in the set offense, and the team likewise can sputter if it must set up everytime down the court.
In their most significant victories of the season's first half, over Philadelphia, Denver and Portland, all the key elements of the Bullets' success - rebounding (they've won 13 of 16 games in which they've outrebounded opponents), Henderson's leadership and balanced scoring led by Hayes and Dandridge - have come together.
But those nights of scintillating basketball haven't happened enough. Too many times, the Bullets have come up flat against clubs with less talent and have lost games they should have won.
The Bullets aren't without their internal problems. Some of the reserves would like to play more and a few veterans, like Hayes and Dandridge, aren't afraid to speak their minds publicly, even if it involves criticizing their coach. Motta has kept the squabbling to a minimum.
Chenier practiced with the team in Washington but his hamstring pull was still sore. Motta said he hoped Chenier could join the team in time for Friday night's game in Los Angeles.@*