They can hardly be considered among the league's elite teams, but the steadily improving Washington Bullets are learning their weaknesses and how to cope with them.
The victories in three games over the last week gave the Bullets an 8-6 record for November, improving their overall record to 10-14. If the playoffs were to start now, the Bullets would qualify.
The victories over Indiana Thursday and Milwaukee Saturday, both at Capital Centre, were particularly significant because they are the only .500-or-better teams the Bullets have beaten so far. b
They beat Indiana with their offense, registering a season-high 123 points.
They relied on their defense, which has carried them most of the season, to upset Milwaukee Saturday, 98-89. The Bucks had won 11 straight road games, but have some injury problems. Nevertheless, the Bullets kept them out of thier offense and successfully turned back every challenge the vistors made.
Sandwiched between those victories was a dreadful 126-105 loss to Cleveland at Richfield, Ohio.
"After the was we played Indiana, I thought we'd go out and really get the job done against Cleveland," Bullet Coach Gene Shue said, "but our bodies just weren't alive. Mine was, but that doesn't count."
They were alive against the Bucks, though. Elvin Hayes, despite a sore knee, which limited him to only 11 minutes against the Cavaliers, sparked the Bullets on a 10-0 scoring spurt at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second that gave the home team a five-point lead. Washington never trailed again.
Mitch Kupchak and Carlos Terry are two large reasons the Bullets have improved after their dismal start. Kupchak has averaged 15.6 points and nine rebounds the last three games and Terry was a big-play man in both of the last two victories with his hustle and general court presence.
Still, Shue and his assistant, Bernie Bickerstaff, say the biggest difference of all has been Wes Unseld.
He had perhaps his best overall game against the Bucks. He outplayed Bob Lanier all night and led both teams in scoring (20 points) and rebounding (11). He also had two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
"The big fella has been playing his tail off all season," said Bickerstaff.
"Not only is he doing his job, but he's helping out and covering for other people, too."
The Bullets are not a pretty, finesse team and they know it. They win with bruising defense inside and scrapping for whatever they can get on offense.
"We're convinced that our defense is the best in the league," said Kevin Grevey. "We're holding good teams down. We know we aren't going to win very many games with our offense, so we have to try and frustrate people with our defense."
Surprisingly, the recent Bullet success has come without Bob Dandridge, considered by some as the key to the team. He played in only one game last month, a loss to New York, and the Bullets haven't seemed to miss him that much. Greg Ballard has started in his place and Terry has backed up Ballard.
Reserve shooting guard Austin Carr' had minor surgery on his knee last week and didn't play in any of the last three games, either. He is expected back this week.
The month of December will answer more questions for the Bullets. They will play nine games at home this month and only five on the road. They also will be going against all five teams in the conference with better records.
The Bullets have three games this week. They face the Kansas City Kings Tuesday at Capital Centre, travel to Indianapolis to face the Pacers Wednesday and return to Capital Centre Friday to play the Detroit Pistons.