Sometime in the second quarter (one forgets the frightening details), Darryl Dawkins had the basketball in his right hand, hefting it the way mortals carry about a tangerine. Reports from radar stations in Greenland sent us scurrying for cover, for Dawkins was about to launch a dunk shot. At Ground Zero, this dunk vaporized every popcorn box at courtside. In the cheap seats, beer cups melted. Outside, small animals said their prayers.

No, not really.

Just almost.

"When Darryl gets in his rhythm," said Julius Erving, "he gives us an unstoppable player."

The wonderful Bullets have come a zillion miles this season. Once they seemed a woebegotten gang of castoffs and never-will-bes. Now they have won 42 regular season games, only two less than in '77-78 when they went on to win the NBA championship. Not only that, this team plays with a flair the boringly efficient Hayes-Unseld outfits never had.

After losing their first 14 games to their division's three best teams--Boston (0-6), Philadelphia (0-5) and Milwaukee (0-3)--the Bullets beat Milwaukee twice in the last week. The NBA playoffs begin next week, with the Bullets maybe going to play Philadelphia again (or Atlanta, or the Nets; check the paper).

Naturally, then, most of those 19,035 customers at Capital Centre last night were transported to visions of glory to come midway in the fourth quarter when the Bullets yet held an 89-86 lead over the 76ers. The biggest lead was 11 points, at 41-30, which is nothing against Erving, of course, but it's something when you've lost five times by a total of 65 points.

But at 89-86, Dawkins limped downcourt to set up on offense.

His leg, the right one, the one that looks like an oak tree, was broken a couple months ago. He has started the last four games, though, and he said afterward that if it looked like he was limping downcourt, that's only because the leg still hurts like blazes.

So what happens? With about four minutes to play, he gets the ball with his back to Rick Mahorn. Bouncey, bouncey Dawkins does with the basketball before turning to put up a 10-footer against Mahorn, who does not like the idea of Dawkins scoring again. (He had 12 points in 24 minutes then.)

As Dawkins goes up, falling backward a little to get away from Mahorn, the Bullets' defender simply hammers Dawkins. Understand here, Mahorn can lift cars. When he hammers you, you are driven into the floor. Unless, of course, you are Darryl Dawkins, who lifts trains.

"Ten feet?" Dawkins said to a reporter recreating the collision. "Fifteen feet. Gimme credit."

Well, how hard did Mahorn hit him?

"A wallop," Dawkins said.

But the shot, somehow, went in. Besides which, the 76ers took the rebound on Dawkins' missed free throw. And 10 seconds later, rebounding his own missed jumper, Erving slammed through a dunk so hard the ball bounced 15 feet into the air. That gave Philadelphia the lead, 90-89, and try as the eager Bullets might, that was that.

To say the better team won seems foolish, readily apparent to anyone who checks the standings and sees 57-24 next to Philadelphia. In this case, it needs saying because often a very good team wins by default when its opponent stumbles over its shoelaces. If the Bullets once were capable of buffoonery, as in the early games when they needed those Kiwanis name tags to identify each other, they now are a nice team due congratulations.

So Billy Cunningham, the coach, along with Erving and Dawkins said nice things after beating the Bullets last night.

"At halftime, I told our guys the Bullets were doing everything right," Cunningham said.

"Spencer Haywood, Jeff Ruland, Frank Johnson--they're all playing with so much more confidence. The Bullets are an outstanding club right now. Gene Shue and Bob Ferry have done an outstanding job building that club. Johnson has the look of a veteran instead of a rookie. And Spencer Haywood has proved he can play, not only to himself but to anybody who knows anything about pro basketball."

Dawkins on the Bullets: "They're a whole lot better than they were at the first of the season. Their attitude has changed. They seem to want to win now. They gave a hell of an effort out there tonight."

Before we get testimony from Erving, this usual accounting of his customary nightly miracle. From the left side, on the break, he put up a layup with his right hand, spinning the ball so as to cause it to crawl over the rim and into the net. It wasn't so much his 22 points that beat the Bullets as it was the presence of a single man whose offensive work can change the game; the Bullets have no such fellow.

Anyway, Erving likes the Bullets nowadays, saying, "They're playing with more confidence, more awareness of the team strengths. They go to those strengths more. Like with Don Collins. He's explosive and they're using him running more."

Which should not be read to say Julius Erving fears the Bullets.

Someone asked if he were worried about meeting in the miniseries a team the 76ers have beaten six straight times. The idea is that the law of averages eventually prevails.

"Sweeping Washington gives us quite an advantage," Erving said. "When you've beaten a club six times, there's no reason you shouldn't keep on beating them. You're doing something right. The last two games have been close, but they haven't broken through yet."