The Bullets will try tonight at Capital Centre to begin writing an unhappy ending to what has been a storybook season for the Atlanta Hawks.
"They are the Cinderella team in the league," said Washington Coach Dick Motta. "they are the underdogs. They have everyone rooting for them. I guess that makes us the villains."
But the Bullets feel they can make the clock strike midnight and end the Hawks' dreams of capturing this best-two-out-of-three playoff series. And in the process, they hope they can start turning around a so far disappointing season.
The game will not be telecast here but will be broadcast on radio, WTOP-1500, beginning at 8 p.m.
For whatever the reasons - injuries, poor defense, inconsistency - Washington hsn't been able to live up to trainging camp expectations. Instead of emerging as one of the NBA's best teams, the Bullets struggled down the stretch and didn't qualify for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs until the final day of the regular season.
"Considering our injuries and all, we probably have done as well as we could expect," said Elvin Hayes. "But we know we are better than people are saying. The only way to prove it is to do well in the playoffs."
There is no secret behind Bullet victories. The club has won this season when it outrebounded opponents (something it did in 32 of 44 triumphs), made at least 70 percent of its foul shots (something it did in 31 wins) and held foes to less than 100 points (something it did in 16 victories).
Toss in a good shooting night from the guards to take pressure off the team's strong inside game and Washington looked every bit like a league powerhouse.
But when the Bullets stopped doing what Wes Unseld calls the little things - playing good team defense, running an efficient fast break, getting good ball movement, especially against zone defenses such as the Hawks employ - they stumbled.
"I know they call the playoffs a second season, and for us it really is," said Kevin Grevey. "It will give us a chance to see how we play under pressure and when we are at the top of our game."
Washington should be near the top of its form physically for the first time in weeks. Motta will begin the 8:05 p.m. game with a healthy lineup, although Tom Henderson (ankle and foot) and Bob Dandridge (groin) aren't 100 percent.
"I'm ready and I think the players are," Motta said. "They worked hard and we covered a lot ot ground in two days or practice. We've got veterans and I think they will respond to this series." Atlanta will be loose. Whatever they do now is frosting on the cake for them."
On talent alone, Washington should be able to handle Atlanta. But the Hawks have overcome talent deficienies all season, finishing with a 41-41 recoed after being picked at the start of schedule as the second worst team in the league.
Atlanta gambles that its pressure defenses will cause enough turnovers and disrupt offenses enough to offset disadvantages at the foul line, where opponents shot almost 300 more free throws.
For the most part, that approach worked. The Hawks led the league in creating turnovers and were second to Phoenix in steals. As long as their defense is active and they can keep from getting involved in a running game, they usually are competitive.
Oly forward John Drew, who averages 23.1 points, stands out from the rest of his teammates. He will be guarded by Bob Dandridge, who hopes to take advantages of Coach Hubie Brown's emphasis on defense.
"If you can score some points off Drew, I don't think Hubie will keep him in there," said Dandridge. "Hubie doesn't want to give up too many points down the other end."
In the only game the Hawks won over the Bullets this year, in which Dandridge didn't play, Drew scored 35 points. In Washington's three victories, Drew missed two with the flu and had 21 points (three more than Dandridge) in the third. The Bullets managed to score more than 101 points in only one Atlanta game.
Brown will start Drew and former Maryland All-America Tom McMillen at forward, Steve Hawes at center and Armond Hill and rookie Eddie Johnson at guard. Johnson scored 25 in a 98-95 defeat March 25 at the Centre.