Their confidence is faltering and the pressure of trying to make the playoffs is starting to show. The Washington Bullets have started second-guessing each other and showing signs of cracking under the strain.
The Bullets, the only team in the National Basketball Association to have made it to the playoffs each of the last 11 seasons, will begin their most difficult and important week of the season tonight in San Antonio against the Spurs (WDCA-TV-20 at 9 p.m.). Their spirits are sagging.
They are short-handed physically and have lost two of their last three games. They are back in seventh place in the conference, with only six teams advancing to the playoffs. Bobby Dandridge and Mitch Kupchak probably won't play again during the regular season.
After Sunday's 133-124 loss to the New York Knicks at Capital Centre, Elvin Hayes also attacked Coach Dick Motta's coaching, particularly his patterns of substitution.
Motta laughed off Hayes' criticism as "frustration." But Hayes isn't the first Bullet to question Motta's coaching this season.
Other players have criticized Motta's coaching -- or lack of it -- this season, but none as vocally as Hayes.
General Manager Bob Ferry said yesterday he agreed with Motta that Hayes was frustrated, but he also said he is, nevertheless, concerned with the situation.
"People often say things that they shouldn't," Ferry added. "Players, coaches and even general managers do it."
Hayes feels Kevin Porter and John Williamson should be playing more instead of starting guards Kevin Grevey and Jim Cleamons. He also thinks Motta is too rigid in the way he substitutes.
For the past few weeks, Motta has used Grevey and Cleamons in the first and third quarters and Porter and Williamson in the second and fourth periods.
"We just shouldn't be locked into substituting only at certain times," Hayes said. "The game should dictate when we make substitutions."
The Bullets blew a 16-point lead in the third quarter against the Knicks with Grevey and Cleamons in the game. Hayes says that is when Motta should have tried Williamson and Porter, "or something to change the momentum."
Motta eventually did use Porter and Williamson, but their defense was so bad that the Knicks' Ray Williams and Michael Ray Williams that it offset any offense they produced.
Williamson scored 21 points and Porter had 19, with 16 assists. But Williamson scored only four points in the second half.
The Knick guards, meanwhile, were dominant. Williams scored 38 points with six assists and Richardson had 25 points and 17 assists. Their defense also was outstanding, forcing the action while the Bullets were left to react.
Motta said yesterday he is doing the best he can with what he has and added: "Some of them (the players) complain when they don't know how much or when they're going to play and some of them still complain when they do know. I can't worry about these kinds of things."
"Everybody does some second-guessing," Ferry said, "I second-guess a lot and the coaches second-guess themselves, too.
"This is a situation where we have to scramble. We can't grind out wins anymore. We have to scatter, scramble and try different things than we normally would. We have to gamble."
In the last six games, Hayes has played an average of 46.7 minutes. He played the entire 48 minutes against the Knicks and scored a season-high 43 points Sunday.
"That's why he said what he said," one player said. "If he didn't score 43 points, he would have kept his mouth shut."
Cleamons, who has been playing fewer minutes lately, took Hayes criticism casually.
"Everything isn't going to go well all of the time," he said, "and when it doesn't, some people have a hard time dealing with it."
The Bullets could have a hard time dealing with this entire week.
After tonight's game, they go to Atlanta to face the Hawks Wednesday and then return to Capital Centre Thursday to play the Philadelphia 76ers. They then travel to New York to face the Knicks again Saturday night and face the Detroit Pistons at Capital Centre Sunday afternoon.
Despite their recent woes, the playoffs still are within their grasp.
Going into tonight's games they trail sixth-place Houston by only one game and are only two games behind fourth-place New York with nine left to play.
Dandridge, who has missed most of the last two months with a calf injury, probably is out for the season. He did not make the trip to San Antonio, instead going to Connecticutt to see a specialist.