Bullet coach Dick Motta is starting to have good vibrations about this once-struggling basketball team. But he'd like to see them win on the road before he hands out too many plaudits.

"I see a lot of signs I like about this club," said Motta. "They are moving well, the bodies are responding, they are alert and they are responding when they are being challenged."

But most of those traits are being displayed before the friendly fans at Capital Centre, where the Bullets have lost only 6 of 29 games this year.

Put on blue road uniforms, however, and Washington becomes a different team. Its 9-23 road record includes losses in 17 of the last 20 games away from Landover, and only one victory in the last 14 contests.

"We need to beat someone on the road," said Kevin Grevey. "Why not start now?" Now means tonight, when the Bullets are in Detroit to take on the Pistons at 8:05 (WDCA-TV 20).

Actually, the Bullets have improved on the road. They have gone from losing lopsided games to bowing in close ones, including a one-point overtime defeat at Milwaukee Tuesday night.

"We really haven't played that poorly on the road lately," Motta said. "We just haven't been able to win. But maybe Mitch's improvement will make that difference."

Certainly Mitch Kupchak is making great strides in recovering from his thumb injury. He scored 13 points in 19 minutes against Milwaukee an had 22 in 20 minutes against San Antonio Wednesday night. It was only his fourth game back and he still is having problems grabbing the ball under the defensive boards, but his aggressiveness seems to be picking up the team.

"I feel good, real good," he said "I'm moving well and I'm not hesitating. Everytime out, I feel more confident in what I can do."

The Bullets haven't forgotten that, with a healthy Kupchak, they were one of the NBA's best teams in early January, even without Phil Chenier. And they believe if Kupchak can continue his comeback, they can finish with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, which is a must if they hope to go anywhere in the playoffs.

Washington's main competition for the third spot, which would guarantee a home advantage in the first round, is New York. Cleveland is also in contention. With a fourth of the regular season left, Washington has 12 home games and nine on the road remaining; New York has nine home and 12 road contests, and Cleveland has 11 home and nine road games.

"We've got a favorable schedule," said Motta. "It will help us the last few weeks (when seven of the final 10 games are at home). But I would like to see us win a few on the road. Then I think we would be in great shape."

Washington also will have a chance to help itself down the stretch. The Bullets play the Knicks twice (home and away) and host Cleveland once. And of their last 21 games, 12 are against clubs who currently are .500 or under, including two with Houston, two with New Jersey, two with Boston and one each with Kansas City and Indiana.

One of the keys in the final five weeks will be Washington's ability to run, especially on the road. When the Bullets fast break consistently in games, it helps relieve some of the burden underneath from Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge. The team has problems when it has to set up a play every time down the court.

"The way Wes (Unseld) and Elvin are rebounding, we are getting a lot more fast-break opportunities," said Motta. "Just think what it will be like when Mitch can contribute some more. We should be able to play free and loose from now on."