Coach Dick Motta said recently he'd rather have his Washington Bullets playing playoff contenders than alsorans as the regular seaon wound down. He will get his wish this week when his team finds itself in the middle of the wildest race in years for NBA postseason spots.
Starting with tonight's 8:05 matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers in Capital Centre, the Bullets meet four straight playoff contenders after a seven-game stretch in which they roughed up some of the league's most inept teams.
There is plenty of incentive for the top clubs to play well the final 13 days of the schedule. Eleven teams, including the 76ers, still are jockeying for position in the playoff derby. Races are so close that a swing of a couple of games would alter many of the pairings shown in the accompanying chart.
For example, Philadelphia presently is the No. 5 team in the Eastern Conference with a 41-34 record. But the 76ers, who have won six of their last eight since Doug Collins returned from foot surgery, are just one game behind Houston (41-32) for third place and two behind San Antonio (43-32) for second.
In all, four teams are within two games of each other in the East race and five are within three games in the West.
Of the 13 clubs in contention for the playoffs, only Washington, which has wrapped up the Atlantic Division, and New Jersey, which will be the No. 6 squad in the East, know where they will be placed at the start of the socalled second season.
Despite the close races, CBS television is not excited by the playoffs. The network has decided that no final-round games the last week in May will be televised in prime time, with those on the East Coast shown on a delayed basis and those on the West Coast beginning at 11:30 p.m. (EDT).
The decision, made at least eight months ago, was prompted by protests from CBS affiliates who did not want NBA games interfering with the May ratings. Dates for the final round are May 20, 24, 27 and 29 and June 1, 3 and 6.
This is how the playoffs will begin: the four division winners all get byes, with the next four highest finishers in each conference meeting in a best-of-three series, No. 3 playing No. 6 and No. 4 playing No. 5.
Each conference's No. 1 club then plays the winner of the No. 4-5 series in a best-of-seven matchup while No. 2 plays the winner of 3-6.
Should a division winner not have the first- or second-best record in its conference, it still gets an automatic first-round bye but would relinquish the home-court advantage to a club with a better record in any subsequent series.
Thus, Philadelphia could have the East's No. 2 mark and would have to go through the best two-of-three series since Washington already has won the 76ers' division. But if the 76ers advance to the next round, they would have the home-court advantage over any team in the East except the Bullets.
A closer look at the races.
EAST: The 76ers are the hot team in the conference after stumbling badly whild Collins missed 25 games. When he returned, they were just three games over.500 but since have registered impressive wins in Houston and San Antonio.
With Collins, who has been hampered by a strained arch and may not play tonight, and the continuing development of Darryl Dawkins, Philadelphia could frind itself in the same less-pressurized playoff position that Washington found so helpful last year.
It is important to the 76ers to make up the one-game lead held by No. 3 Houston, so they will be paired in the mini-series against New Jersey and not dangerous Atlanta, as presently would be the case.
The Hawks, Rockets and San Antonio are staging an intense struggle for the Central Division title. Atlanta, in third place, is just 1 1/2 games behind the Spurs, who appeared to have the championship wrapped up before losing four straight home games.
Houston, which has improved steadily the last part of the season, plays six of its remaining nine games on the road. Atlanta has a three-three split and is getting a five-day vaction before playing Friday. San Antonio has the most favorable schedule with four of seven contests on their once friendly home court.
Nobody wants to play Atlanta, either in a miniseries or a seven-game round. The Hawks scratch and scramble so much and foul so frequently that they irritate opponents, who would much rather be paired against less aggressive fors.
WEST: Seattle has regained its consistency after faltering in early March, but the SuperSonics' two-game lead over Phoenix in the Pacific Division is hardly comfortable.
The Suns, playing well despite the absence of Truck Robinson, have five straight hime games before finishing with two on the road. Seattle, trailing Washington by four for the league's No. 1 record, ends with four home and five away games, including four strraight on unfriendly courts at the end of its Schedule.
Los Angeles seems destined to finish in the middle of the playoff pack as long as Kareem Abdul Jabbar continues to perform inconsistently.
The race for the Central Division crown and the remaining three places in the conference is as tight as the mortgage money market. Kansas City once held a comfortable edge over Denver in the Central, but an injury to Scott Wedman sent the Kings into a tailspin that narrowed their lead to a half-game over the Nuggets.
One of those teams automatically will join the playoffs by capturing the division title. But the loser risks elimination from post season play because of the close competition being provided by San Diego and Portland.
Presently, the four squads are separated by just two games with Kansas City (43-33) in front and Portland (40-34) in the odd-club-out position.
The Trail Blazers, one of the worst road teams in the league, play five of their final eight contests away from home. San Diego has four of seven at home while Denver plays six of seven on the road, including its last five. Kansas City has a three-three split for its final six.
Mitch Kupchak's return from a sore back is still listed on a day-to-day basis. He could play tonight if his back feels better. The injury, which he thought would keep him sidelined for only a couple of games, now has lasted through four contests... Washington will play its first game in the conference semifinals playoffs either April 15 or 17, depending on the length of the miniseries. Other dates would be April 20, 22, 24, 27 and 29.