Though the Bullets have lost four of their last five games, haven't been able to beat teams such as Dallas, Cleveland and Utah at home and now are three games under the .500 mark, they still are very prominent in the playoff picture.
Following Friday night's visit by Kansas City, there will be two very important home games coming up: against New York Sunday afternoon and New Jersey Tuesday night.
Heading into March, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Atlanta and Detroit are in contention for the three spots in the Eastern Conference behind the elite: Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee.
New Jersey is 27-28; Washington 25-28; Atlanta 24-28; New York 25-31, and Detroit 24-30. The playoff formula gives the two division winners a first-round bye. The third-place team meets No. 6 in a best-of-three series and No. 4 takes on No. 5.
If the Bullets finish fourth--they currently trail the Nets by one game--they would have the home-court advantage in a best-of-three series with the fifth-place team.
It certainly is plausible that the Bullets could get past the miniseries and advance to a best-of-seven series with the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. That would assure the Bullets at least four home playoff games, which could make the difference between losing or making money this season.
Here is a look at the Bullets' rivals for the valuable fourth-place finish with their home-away schedule in parentheses:
New Jersey (15-11)--The Nets have improved dramatically since Foots Walker took over the playmaking duties and Ray Williams moved over to the other guard spot, filling the void created by the injury to Otis Birdsong. With Albert King now secure at one forward and his former Maryland teammate, Buck Williams, the league's No. 3 rebounder, at the other, the Nets are getting balanced scoring and playing better defense. Oddly, one thing that could hurt them is Birdsong's return because it would disrupt their chemistry.
Atlanta (16-13)--With a revitalized Eddie Johnson leading the way, the Hawks have won five in a row to get back in contention. Their leading rebounder, Dan Roundfield, still is hobbled by a thigh injury, but Tom McMillen is providing enough scoring from that spot to keep opponents from ganging up on John Drew. Tree Rollins also is healthy again and anchoring the defense with his shot-blocking. When Roundfield returns, this talented team has the potential to finish with a winning record.
New York (14-11)--An enigma. This team is so confused, so disorganized, so unpredictable that the arrival of Paul Westphal can't disrupt a thing. It seems unlikely that Seattle will give up this five-time all-star without some sort of compensation or that he can make a difference at this late date, so Coach Red Holzman still must rely on erratic Mike Newlin and Randy Smith as the off guards. The Knicks certainly have the talent to make the playoffs, but this doesn't appear to be their year.
Detroit (16-11)--The best darkhorse bet. The Pistons are only two games behind New Jersey in the loss column and are charging. The acquisition of two physical rebounders, Kenny Carr (8.5 a game) and backup center Bill Laimbeer will ease Kent Benson's burden. John Long (22.7 points per game) gives the team the outside shooting threat it needs to complement the penetrating Isiah Thomas. Kelly Tripucka's 20-points-a-game scoring gives the running game a lift and spreads the court. This team is coming fast.
The Bullets must play 14 of their final 29 games on the road, but that could help them. They have a 14-13 road record and are 11-15 at Capital Centre.
Coach Gene Shue's biggest worry at the moment is finding a dependable outside shooter, which is essential to make his plays effective. After missing three games with an injured finger, Kevin Grevey was scoreless in losses to Golden State and Utah. Don Collins, who has been starting in Grevey's spot, is not an outside shooter. Teams have been sagging on him and jamming the middle, reducing Jeff Ruland's effectiveness.
"Right now we don't have an outside shooter and it's really hurting us," Shue said. "In order to get the ball in position for inside shots, you've got to have an outside threat. You've got to get 15 or 20 points from the No. 2 guard."
Frank Johnson showed signs of coming out of his slump against Utah when he scored a career-high 27 points. If he can regain the touch he had before suffering an ankle injury just before the All-Star break, Shue's concern will be eased.