A few minutes before practice today Bullet Coach Dick Motta was mumbling to no one in particular, "we're not in rhythm . . . if we were just playing 70 percent, we'd be okay . . . we're 15 points better than they are."
Possibly, but only if Elvin Hayes overcomes a touchy trigger finger and the entire team stops believing 28 minutes of intensity will win a 48-minute game. And if somebody can keep the Spurs' James Silas from scoring at will for ever-so-lengthy stretches.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to insist that the outcome of Game 4 of the NBA's Eastern Conference championship teeters on two players, Hayes and Silas. For the Bullets to win, Hayes must score-and Silas must be kept relatively in check.
The most encouraging matter for Bullet fans today was that serious practice lasted fewer than 10 minutes. There was no sense of panic over the jammed long finger on Haye's right hand, no sudden alteration in strategy. And Hayes did not seem dismayed, which might be even more significant.
"We're getting shots when we want them, where we want them and from who's supposed to shoot," Motta kept saying. "But the only real intensity (during the two-point loss Wednesday) came when we were 14 down (in the final 6 1/2 minutes).
"It was like someone lifted a veil off us, like night and day. Our bodies were alive, but it was too late. I think there's a different philosophy when you're supposed to win (a playoff series) and when you hope to win. That's new to some people on this club."
With Hayes hurting more than anytime earlier in the game, the Bullets outplayed the Spurs the last half of the last quarter. And Motta practically grabbed local reporters here to preach the "choke" message he wants the Spurs to read over and over.
"I've never seen San Antonio hold the lead in big pressure games," he said. "Not that they haven't played well, but I watched them against Philadelphia during the semifinals series) and no one wanted to take a shot."
In truth, too many Spurs wanted to take too many shots late Wednesday against Washington. Silas had a chance to give away a game he helped win with some of the most ill-advised shots in memory. One was so unexpected-or at least by the Bullets-that Larry Kenon grabbed the uncontested rebound and stuffed a critical follow-up.
Silas is the one major change between the Spurs that lost to the Bullets in six games a year ago and the Spurs that lead the series this year. In the two San Antonio victories, Silas scored 28 and 22 points. In the one Washington victory, Silas scored 14 points, with just four in the second half.
"We need a big guard on him," Motta said. "When he gets that little bump (on the way up for his jumper) he gets you out of position. He's an awfully strong guy."
"When I'm on him" said big guard Kevin Grevey, "I feel like I can do a job on him. I don't remember him hitting over me the whole game."
Which gets to the point: What Bullet is big enough and strong enough to stay with Silas when Grevey either needs rest or fouls excessively?
Larry Wright's ankle injury makes cutting on defense troublesome. Charles Johnson is smallish. And can Phil Chenier be trusted for another second after going zero for two with four fouls Wednesday?
Much as he bristles over the suggestion, Motta may well be forced to move Bobby Dandridge to the back court, to check George Gervin if not Silas. Greg Ballard has played quite well in reserve against the Spurs and could replace Dandridge up front.
While Motta hopes the Spurs will fold under pressure, the Spurs are trying to picture the Bullets' Wes Unseld as the greatest villain since Santa Ana. Spur Coach Doug Moe has delighted in calling Unseld "a 300-pound moving stump."
The bump-and-run defense is alive and active this series, with the Spurs intently matching Washington elbow for elbow. Said Moe: "When a physical team beats you around (as the Bullets did the Spurs in Game 2), you fight back. And they don't like it."
Or do they?
"The Spurs are out of character when they try to play the way they did (in Game 3)," Motta said. "I like a team to get out of what they've been doing for the 82-game regular season, like last year when they walked the ball up the court against us."
Motta alluded today to the mental games all athletes play when he said: "We're the reverse of San Antonio this year (when the Spurs were favored in the series) we could do what we wanted and say what we wanted."
But who is the underdog at the moment? The Spurs have the home-court advantage, after all. And the Bullets have lost four of their last six playoff games. CAPTION: Picture 1, Bullets hold two-point halftime edge but Coach Dick Motta looks apprehensive. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Bobby Dandridge