The Washington Bullets, world champions for six months, are in the process of moving to a still higher level.
They are proving, for the moment at least, that they are the best basketball team in the world, as well-the champions in repute, not just in name. To the often denigrated Bullets, that is a deeply felt distinction.
"Everywhere we go, we are talked about as the fluke champions . . . the champs who get no respect," Coach Dick Motta said today after his Bullets had won a remarkable eighth straight road game, 137-129, in Phoenix Wednesday night.
"But I think we are changing that. People inside basketball have appreciated us for a while, but now I think the public is getting the message that this club has gained confidence in itself and is a true team.
"We have the possibility of going down as one of the memorable NBA clubs-like the Knicks and Celtics champions-that really played the game properly, as teams, not just a collection of stars. Yes, we are approaching that. We are playing the game of basketball righ now the way I think it should be played.
"I hear people saying things that I like to hear . . . that we're not pretty but that we'r cohesive . . . that we confuse you with so many looks . . . we can attack inside or outside . . . we can outslug you or we can run past you."
Entering Friday's 11 p.m. EST game in Los Angeles, the Bullets have won five in a row and 16 of 18.
Their 23-9 record (.719) is 52 percentage points better than the next best team and their road record of 105-the NBA'S GENUINE MARK OF MENTAL TENACITY-IS THE ONLY ONE IN THE LEAGUE OVER .500.
FORGOTTEN IS THE NAGGING FACT THAT THE BULLETS HAD THE LOWEST WINNING PERCENTAGE LAST SEASON (REGULAR SEASON AND PLAYOFFS COMBINED) OF ANY NBA champion.
Nevertheless, in the current fan All-Star voting, no Bullet ranks higher than 10th in overall ballots at his position. In a perverse way, that delights Motta.
"Maybe we're an unpretentious, working-man's team," Motta said. "We don't have any fancy guys, just decent people I'm comfortable around. That's unusual in pro sports. When we get off airplanes, stewardesses say, Gee, you all are too nice to be pro athletes.'"
Motta's Good Guys have learned to be extemely nasty in tight situations.
"I don't know if we're a .700 team or not," the skeptical Motta said. "I only believe things I can see, and I usually end up only believing about half of that.
"But I detect more confidence in us . . . Less sense of pressure in the clutch. All the things it's hard talk and write about . . . the dimension that you can't touch that sets the special teams apart. Well, I sense some of these things.
"Of course, a champion always gets a few extra breaks-some good whistles, technical fouls when the other team gets frustrated. We're getting those things, too."
The Bullets are leery of their mid-season success.
"I hope we don't do like the Red-Skins did," said Larry Wright, mimicking a nose dive. "This isn't the important time of year."
Even the rib injury that forced Captain Wes unseld to miss the Phoenix game gives the Bullets anxiety since they see themselves as an engine that needs all its cylinders working together to race well.
Unseld will not rejoin the team in Los Angeles, the Bullets' office said, and he is doubtful for Saturday night's game in Portland.
NBA fans generally treat these Bullets as another good, but not charismatic team. "They're not knocking down the gates to see us, " Motta said. "Not yet."
Yet at least one Phoenix heckler had the scales forcibly lifted from his eyes Wednesday night.
Kevin Grevey was bombing in 27 points as his mates crowed, "Jack it up, Dreamboat," and the crowd lamented, "Open your eyes, Grevey." Elvin Hayes scored 29 without making a selfish move-"just working the glass," he said.
Tom Henderson whirled off 13 assists, Mitch Kupchak cracked heads for 16 points and brilliant Bobby Dandridge used Walter Davis like private property for 36 points.
Finally, the Sun fan stood and howled in disgust: "Big a jerk as you are, Motta, you got one helluva team."
The little coach had to smile; his message finally was getting through.