The highlight of Dick Motta's 500th career professional coaching victory yesterday came in the fourth quarter when Bullet guard Kevin Grevey made a steal, sprinted in for a layup and walked away - without limping.
That was the first significant sign that at least one of Washington's walking wounded was mending. And that was just as important to Motta as his team's 105-89 triumph over Denver in Capital Centre, a victory that reduced to three the magic number of beating out Seattle for the NBA's best record.
Although yet another starter, Wes Unseld, was absent because of illness, Grevey's 16 points and four assists and 14 points and 11 rebounds from another sub-par teammate, Mitch Kupchak, had Motta thinking ahead to the playoffs.
"We'd likt to give both Kevn and Mitch more playing time the last week," he said. "We want to get them sharp for the playoffs. Elvin (Hayes) could use less minutes and Larry (Wright) already is playing too many.And Charles Johnson would probably be better with a few less."
Grevey, who missed two weeks with the latest in a series of Hamstring pulls, will return to the starting lineup Tuesday in Milwaukee, another move Motta hopes will begin shaping up his club "so we can be functioning the way we want in the playoffs."
Motta also would like to use guard Tom Henderson next weekend for the last two games of the regular season, but Henderson, out with a sore knee, didn't seem optimistic yesterday about his ability to play.
"It is feeling better every day," Henderson said, "but I didn't want to take any chances. I'll start working out a little this week and if it feels good, I may play. My main concern is to be ready for the playoffs. They are doing okay without me."
The Bullets' victory was their 52nd of the year with five games left. Even Hayes, the man with the indestructible body, says he'd like to wrap up the league's best record as soon as possible.
"Playing these extra minutes hasn't bothered me yet," said Hayes, who had 30 points and 18 rebounds yesterday, "but I would like to get the record business over with and start cutting back. I'm just glad that we have a week off before we start the playoffs. It will make us strong again."
The Bullets have played well just once in almost two weeks, but there were signs of a resurgence in the second half against Denver.
Motta might have helped out by delivering a stern halftime lecture after witnessing another lethargic 24 minutes of basketball. The pep talk took effect late in the third period when Washington, ripping off a couple of fast breaks, went on a 10-2 surge that enlarged a 56-55 lead to 66-57.
But Denver, playing without injured George McGinnis, who is out six to eight weeks with a bad ankle, wasn't ready to see its seven-game winning streak ended. The Nuggets, helped by a spectacular one-handed rebound stuff by David Thompson, nibbled away until they drew to 81-74 early in the fourth quarter.
That's when Grevey intercepted a pass to Thompson, drove the length of the floor and put in any easy lay-up. He added an 18-footer and fed Hayes for a jumper and the advantage was up to 13.
Thompson, however, wasn't done. He finished off a 34-point game with two long one-handers, the last with 4:05 remaining, to narrow the Denver deficit to 89-82.
Hayes responded with a jump shot, Bob Dandridge drove for a layup, Greg Ballard ended a fast break with a basket and Hayes popped in a shot to end any suspense.
Grevely, who played briefly Friday, got in for 30 minutes yesterday after Johnson got into foul trouble early. Although he admitted he was thinking about the hamstring while playing, he was moving freely. That, he said, was a good sign.
"I didn't feel any twinges out there," he said, "but I'm not ready to run full out yet, either. It didn't hurt on that steal, at least, I don't want to press my luck. It wouldn't be smart for me to play 40 or 45 minutes a game right now and feel any strain.
"The other nighjt, I felt like a rookie. I was nervous and I had a lot of butterfiles. Today, once I hit a couple of jumpers I felt better, but I need to get my legs back so I can stop shooting my jumper with may arms."
Kupchak, who has been slowed the last month by back and heel injuries, had made only one of six shots at the half while replacing Unseld. But he picked up seven rebounds and 10 points after intermission and sprinted the court with his usual enthusiasm.
Motta didn't know what to expect when the game began. He was told yesterday morning that Unseld, who had a 103-degree fever, would not play and all he could say was" "What else can go wrong?"
But after winning his 500th and receiving the game ball from team owner Abe Pollin, Motta has in far better spirits.
"I just hope the next 500 aren't filled with as much trouble," he said with a grin. "But you know this says a lot about the stability in this league. After 33 years, only three people have ever won 500. You have to wonder about."