Washington Bullet Coach Dick Motta, having watched his team ride a roller coaster all season, is still only cautiously optimistic, despite the squad's six wins in its last seven games and its heightened chances of making the playoffs.
"We still have a tough road ahead and we aren't there yet," said Motta, whose team appeared doomed two weeks ago. "If we keep playing like we have been, we'll be all right. We've gotten into a nice rhythm now. It's just too bad we didn't start the season this way."
Going into tonight's 8:05 game against New Jersey at Capital Centre, the Bullets trail San Antonio by one game for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They are just one and a half games behind fourth-place Houston, and one behind the fifth-place New York Knicks.
The Knicks lost to Detroit last night and the Rockets lost to Boston. The Bullets and Spurs were idle.
But while Motta may still be a little nervous, some of his players aren't.
"We're going to make it to the playoffs. I have no doubts about it," said forward Elvin Hayes, who scored a season-high 42 points in the Bullets' 135-107 victory over the Detroit Pistons Tuesday night at Capital Centre.
"We're rolling now. Everyone is playing good and everyone is contributing, I think some of the teams ahead of us can hear us coming."
Center Wes Unseld, who missed yesterday's practice with a sore back, said: "If we keep playing like we have been, we'll be okay."
Boston's Red Auerbach said he doesn't know what was wrong with the Bullets earlier, "but they've got talent coming out of their ears now."
"When they were struggling back when the season started," said Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham, "I said not to count them out. I knew they'd be there somewhere when it got to be playoff time. They're just too good to stay down."
The Bullets are playing their best basketball of the season without two of their top players, Bob Dandridge and Mitch Kupchak.
Kupchak was put on the injured list Saturday with imflammation of a nerve in his back and Dandridge has missed the last nine games with a calf injury.
Fearing that Kupchak could be lost for the season, the Bullets signed former Maryland player Lawrence Boston to a 10-day contract. That contract most likely will be renewed.
"I've got some inflammation in the nerve where I had surgery last summer," Kupchak said. "There's no serious problem. It just hurts quite a bit. The doctor said it isn't an unusual occurrence. It started bothering me about two weeks ago, but I thought it would pass. It didn't, though. I didn't want to say anything so I kept playing.
"There's no real damage to my back. I just wasn't helping the team, so if they could get someone in my place who could help, they had to do it," Kupchak added. "When the 10 days is up, I'll see how I feel and what management thinks and then a decision will be made."
Dandridge said Sunday that his leg wasn't getting any better and he didn't know when he would play again. But Motta said yesterday that they were hoping to have Dandridge back by next Tuesday when the Bullets host San Antonio, or even this Sunday, when they visit the Celtics.
Tonght's game will be the first Capital Centre appearance for former Bullet Roger Phegley since he was traded to the Nets for John Williamson Feb. 4. . . . The Nets have also been bolstered by the addition of Maurice Lucas, whom they acquired from Portland in the deal that sent Calvin Natt to the Trail Blazers . . . After tonight's game the Bullets will have only 15 games remaining; seven of them will be at Capital Centre. They will have two left with San Antonio -- home and away -- and two with New York -- home and away. Also included in their remaining games are two each against both Boston and Philadephia, the teams with the two best records in the NBA.