The Bullets, struggling most of the first half of their season, have apparently slipped into their groove and can take a giant step back toward respectability at 8 p.m. tonight when they challenge the mighty Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum (WDCA-TV-20).
Fresh off Wednesday's 103-101 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Capital Centre, the Bullets will be trying to stretch their winning streak to five games and level their record.
Washington has not beaten the 76ers in three tries this season; success tonight would even its record at 20-20. Washington hasn't been a .500 team since it was 9-9 Nov. 24.
The 76ers, 30-11, have the second best record in the league behind the Boston Celtics.
In their four-game winning streak, the Bullets defeated Golden State and Utah, two of the NBA's worst teams, and Seattle and Los Angeles, two of its best. All except the Laker game were on the road.
"Everything is just going good for us now," Bullet Coach Dick Motta said yesterday. "Sure we want to get to .500, but our season isn't even half over yet. I'm looking for a playoff spot now. I just want to have a strong second half of the season. If we can keep our people healthy, we should continue to improve."
As recently as 10 days ago the Bullets hit bottom. They had fallen apart at Portland, losing, 109-99, for their fourth loss in five games. They were five games below .500 and at a crucial point of the season.
They were not intimidated by the defending NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics the next night in the Kingdome, however, winning in double overtime and they have played with an air of confidence ever since.
"I just hope it continues and I think it will," Motta said.
There are a number of reasons for the Bullet revival.
Bob Dandridge returned after an assortment of injuries and, as the sixth man, has given the Bullets a cool head and hot hand when the games get close at the end. Dandridge has averaged 15 points in the last four games, while playing 30 minutes a contest.
Jim Cleamons has taken over as the Bullets' floor leader.
Greg Ballard, starting instead of Dandridge, has scored and rebounded well, proving he can be an effective starter.
Larry Wright, the fastest Bullet, has emerged as an explosive third guard. He is averaging 15.7 points and six assists over the last three games, and may be the Bullets' most talented all-around offensive guard.
Mitch Kupchak is playing more and showing signs of regaining his form after back surgery in the offseason.
"If Bobby hadn't gotten injured we'd already be two of three games above .500 by now," Motta said. "I'm comfortable with the way he has played off the bench and I'm pleased with the way Greg has played as a starter.There's no reason to make a change right now, but Bobby is the starter. He's earned it and when he gets back to top form, he'll be starting again," Motta said.
"I've talked to both he and Greg and they understand the situation. Being younger, I think Greg can warm up quicker than Bobby, so it's logical for him to come off the bench."
Motta wants Cleamons to handle the ball as much as possible. During the winning streak he has played an average of 38.5 minutes a game and averaged 15.8 points and five assists. In spite of Cleamons' success, Motta said the newest Bullet "is just now starting to really grasp the offense.
"We're going to get better as Cleamons plays more," Motta added. "He has a command of the general concept of what we want to do and now we're starting on the little things. He's taken over and he's the reason for our improvement."
Wright was almost forgotten until recently, but when big guards Kevin Grevey and Roger Phegley were getting outrun, Wright stepped in alongside Cleamons and, without the burden of having to run the offense, has played superbly.
"I really think having Cleamons is what has helped Larry," said Bernie Bickerstaff, assistant coach. "He has taken the pressure off Larry and now Larry just goes out there and plays basketball and he doesn't have to worry about anything."
Kupchak is playing only about one quarter a game, but is improving each time out.
"He's getting more lively every day, too," Motta said.
"I think everybody feels a lot better than they did a while ago. We should do okay from now on."
The 76ers have won seven of their last eight games and have apparently adjusted to not having Doug Collins, who is recuperating from foot surgery and is not expected to play again this season. His place in the starting lineup has been taken by Clint Richardson, a rookie from Seattle University. Richardson is averaging 7.4 points a game.