The Bullets have shown a tendency this season to lose games in the first half.

Instead of using the opening 24 minutes as a preliminary to the second half where everything comes down to the final two minutes - a routine most regular-season NBA games seem to follow - Washington is stumbling out of the starting blocks like a runner with an untied shoelace.

In games against Seattle, Portland, Golden State, San Antonio and Philadelphia, the Bullets have fallen behind by large, sometimes embarrassing margins before intermission. They have lost each time while showing they hardly are a Silky Sullivan in their attempts to rally.

Opponents are using quickness and defensive pressure to force many early turnovers and mental mistakes while also disrupting Washington's offense. Everything Coach Dick Motta feels he has plugged one leak, another springs up.

First, it was shooting slumps by Elvin Hayes and Kevin Grevey during a winless four-game West Coast trip. Then those two got hot and foes starting picking on the guards, generating mistakes, poor shooting and, sometimes, general confusion in the back court.

Now, there is the problem of enthusiasm. In the Bullets' last two games, Philadelphia and San Antonio were excited, Washington was not. The result: both built 30-point-plus leads in the first half against the defending NBA champs.

"Why were we flat for Philadelphia? I wish I knew," said Motta, who was excited about that game 72 hours before the opening tap. "We've been up for only one game this year, the first one against Philly and that still is the best one we've played."

The question now is whether the Bullets will play with any more spirit in their 8 o'clock game at Cleveland tonight. This remains a relatively unemotional club that found it difficult to get excited even about playing for the league title last season.

Instead, Motta has to look to fundamentals and techniques for ways to break Washington out of its 7-7 start. That means the Bullets have to make a better adjustment to the banning of hand-checking in the league and to the ways opponents are attacking them, especially early in games.

The reduction of hand-checking has increased the importance of quickness and reduced the reliance clubs like Washington may place on muscle. Of the teams they have lost to, each has used either greater team speed or the individual quickness of one player to unnerve the Bullets.

The Bullets can generate a fast break equal to any in the league, but they can't fall into a no-defense, shootout with many of the clubs. Washington plays its best when it is creating a fast tempo, while at the same time forcing opponents into a set offense.

Although the Bullets coaches find some of the early season trends disturbing, they feel it is still too soon to reach any long-term conclusions. They point out that last season Washington was only 8-7 after the first 15 games.

The slow start could damage the team's hope of challenging Philly for the Atlantic Division title. The 76ers haven't lost to anyone but Washington since last April and the more they refine their new movement offense and pressure defense, the tougher they will be to catch.

And there is the matter of homecourt advantage in the early rounds of the playoffs. Last season, Washington struggled to gain an advantageous playoff position, but wound up giving away that home-court edge in every series but the opener against Atlanta.

"When we want to play basketball, we know how good we can be," said Motta. "I'm just hoping that this is only another of our slow starts. We've got too much talent to let this go on for long."