They also play metal games in the National Basketball Association playoffs. In this one between the Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers, George McGinnis controls the verbal tip, gathers his adjectives and lets fly with . . .

"We're a team that need challenges, like being down three games to one. We're just a loose group of guys. Like after we'd lost (the NBA championship) in that sixth game against Portland last year a CBS guy flew back on our plane and said we acted like we'd won.

"We've proved a big point to ourselves (with that 107-94 victory Wednesday night in Philadelphia). Now we have the great ball game of the series (tonight), the first one the Bullets have had to win. Maybe they'll tell you that (game five) didn't affect them. It has to."

Then McGinnis followed up with his Sincere Baseline Jumper: "I really honestly feel in my heart we will beat 'em."

Not far away Bullet Coach Dick Motta is practicing his double-clutch cliche, with full twist, something that one day might be called The Theory of Diminishing Tomorrows.

"We came here (Philadelphia) with two tomorrows, they had none," he said. So with a tomorrow to give, the Bullets gave it. They still have a tomorrow tonight, but not Sunday. That, of course, is when the fat lady signals the end of the opera, unless she gegins singing in Capital Centre shortly after 10 o'clock tonight.

The image the Sixers wanted to linger in Bullet minds came with about five minutes left in Wednesday's game, shortly after Coach Billy Figurehead sent McGinnis and Julius Erving back onto the court to protest a 17-point lead.

From a few feet beyond and to the left of the free-throw line, McGinnis lofted a two-hander that came about as close to the basket as one of his other playoff shots. But this one must have been planned, because Erving soared up and between two Bullets, just missed knocking himself out on the Spectrum ceiling, grabbed the ball and stuffed it.

Bite that bullet, the Sixers were saying.

So tonight we have that NBA rarity, a game both teams give a damn about. And veteran watchers of each team are chuckling that, given the choke levels of everyone involved, the final score might be 16-12, that hands will be pulling back on shots so hard one can imagine a yo-yo instead of a basketball being released.

At last, both teams will be attending to business tonight. All manner of evidence suggests their minds have not always been on one another throughout the first five games. Early on, the Sixers looked at the Bullets but saw the New York Knicks, whom they had dispatched with ease.

In game five, the Bullets seemed to confuse the Sixers with the San Antonio Gervins. You recall the pattern: Washington gets the homecourt advantage early, wins twice at home and then goes on vacation for the fifth game, in San Antonio, only to win the series back in Cap Centre.

The Bullets had San Antonio measured. As Bobby Dandridge said, "We knew we could always go back home and win." The Sixers are not the sort of opponent to fool with. As Dandridge added, "They can come up here (Philadelphia) and win by 20."

Dandridge was the major curiosity Wednesday. He talked about being inspired yet produced his game-five San Antonio numbers: 12 points and one assist. He helped make Erving look like a defensive wizard.

"We weren't working to get Bobby open," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. "When that play down low doesn't work (because Erving is fronting Dandridge), he's got to work somewhere else - and we've got to get him the ball.

"We weren't taking advantage of him and E (Elvin Hayes) enough." Hayes got just 13 shots and made four. He had four assists and could have doubled it had Tom Henderson, almost a nonfactor in this series, and Charles Johnson hit unmolested shots.

For whatever reason, Henderson cannot hit open jump shots and - worse - open layups. Larry Wright, the most effective Bullet guard of the series, sometimes has trouble getting the ball to the proper teammate. Johnson managed to shoot the Bullets into the game and then out of it in a span of several minutes.

But Wes Unseld returned to action and the lingering problems from his ankle injury did not prevent him from grabbing 16 rebounds and passing for five baskets. But he could not make layups. And Mitch Kupchak slipped back into his earlier rut. What a difference a year makes, for during the playoffs last season he was almost flawless.

Still, two Bullet fadeouts in an otherwise splendid 15-game playoff stretch are acceptable. But they had better seize their advantage tonight, for the Sixers, all of a sudden, show signs of curing their earlier miseries.

"I'd sure hate to be down 3-2 and coming (back to Philadelphia)," said Motta. "I don't know if they can play any better - and they scored a whole 107 points." His words dripped with sarcasm.

The mental game goes on.