With one-third of the regular season left, the Bullets are acknowledging that their training camp goal of winning the NBA Central Division title is nearly an impossible dream. Instead, they feel it is much more realistic to concentrate on qualifying for the playoffs.
"Nobody is saying we can't win the division," said guard Kevin Grevey. "But let's face it, San Antonio is not showing any signs of falling apart.And until they do, it won't matter how good we play. If they play as well, we are powerless to catch them."
And even if the Bullets happen to catch the Spurs, who have a six-game lead, Bob Dandridge feels "we'd probably wear ourselves out doing it. I don't know how good we'd be for the playoffs. I think it's important for us to regroup, hope that Mitch (Kupchak) can get back and fit into our scheme again and try to get as much playing time for our reserves as we can, so they will help us in the playoffs. We're at least got to make sure we finish second.
"Once you make the playoffs, it's a whole new game. We'll be involved in a mini series and we can start from there and still get something out of this season."
Counting today's 1:45 p.m. Capital Center meeting with New Orleans (which will be without Pete Maravich), Washington has 27 games remaining, including 17 at home, where the Bullets have won almost 80 percent of the time this season.
If the Bullets maintain this home-court pace and split on the road, they would be 19-8 over the final third of hthe season. That would equal their most consistent basketball of the season, yeta II Sam Antonio would have to do is play at a 500 pace over the same period to win the division. Since the Spurs have 13 of their last 27 games at home, that shouldn't be difficult.
But Washington has showed no signs lately of being better than a 500 club as long as Kupchak and Phil Chenier remain side-lined. This no longer is the same deep, flexible out-fit that storned through the NBA in December. Instead, it is much more fragile and more susceptible to subtle problems than those physical, rough-and-tumble early-season Bullets. Kupchak's return in a couple of weeks will help, but it won't solve the glaring defensive problem the Bullets have at guard. Unless they pick up a free-agent big guard who can relieve Grevey, it is difficult to see them being effective in the playoffs against talented opponents.
The team would get a big boost if Tom Henderson can fulfill his pledge to provide more backcourt scoring punch. He admits "I have to read the defense better and get us moving better. I know we need more scoring output from me. I'm going to try to get more, to go to the basket more."
Kupcak will give the Bullets what Coach Dick Motta calls "his special gusto, although it would be unfair to expect him to pick up immediately where he left off when he was hurt in January.
"We have to just hope he can come around and be at the top of his game by the playoffs," said Dandridge, who may be asked to play some in the backcourt once Kupchak rounds into playing shape.
Until Kupchak's thumb is completely healed and he is his old, reckless self, the Bullets can be expected to continue much along the same level as they've played for the last month. At home, where Motta feels any NBA team "has at leat a 10-point advantage," they should win a majority of their games. On the road, they will continue to struggle.
Before the injuries, Motta had the maneuver-ability to compensate when one or two players had an offnight. If Chenier hit a cold shooting streak, Crevey could come in. If Wes Unseld wasn't moving well, Kupchak would rush in. If the starting unit was let-hargic, three or four subs would be used after being told to by Motta to "pick up the pace and get us moving."
Now, especially on the road, the Bullet first seven players all must play well for the club to win.
One Bullet compared the team's situation to an automobile engine. "When you have eight cylinders, you run smoothly," he said. "If you have six, you still go okay on the straight-aways. But try going up a steep hill sometime. You want those two extra cylinders back."
Road games are easily the Bullets' steepest hills. After overwhelming Buffalo at home Thursday night, for example, they traveled to Indiana Friday and got trounched as the lowly Pacers ran away with the game in the fourth period.
Now they play four straigth home games and have six Capital Centre dates in the next two weeks. They cant't afford to lose any of those contests or they will risk falling behind Cleveland in the race for second in the Central Division.