Their clubhouse is often X-rated. Industrious overachievers on the court, the Bullets are creatively crude off it. Naughty without being noxious. An outsider assumes this gang isn't working with a full deck at play; the question is whether entire suits are missing. Nobody drives that locker room lane without some verbal bruises.

Uniforms sparkled so after a thorough cleaning the other day that somebody wondered if the team hadn't sprung for new ones for the playoffs.

"No," trainer John Lally snapped, "and the way you're playing you might not get one next year."

Zap! Score one for the trainer. A lollygagger had been Lally gagged. Everybody laughed. Kevin Grevey saw more to the scene.

"Can you imagine," Lally said Grevey told him later, "saying anything like that last year?"

Could you imagine this collection of NBA babes and baddies having a good laugh at us right now? They probably are. You guys couldn't forecast where the sun'll rise, one of them might say. It's the kind of hard-ball shots we let 'em have before the season--and got slapped back in our faces.

At last, we have the NBA right where we want it. The playoffs are at hand, and--egad and whoopee--the spunky Bullets are part of it. The waifs aren't pressing their noses against the window any longer; they've crashed the party.

Seven months ago, the notion of the Bullets' last regular-season game being important was as improbable as, well, the Falkland Islands being an international political hotbed. But here it is, the 82nd game, and the Atlanta Hawks are steaming into Capital Centre at ram speed.

Marv Brooks called it "Kruuuuucial" so many times Friday night it must be so.

What it determines is the best bad team in the playoffs.

For the Bullets, that's good.

The rest of the world may yawn at this Bullet-Hawk collision, with fifth place in the NBA's Eastern Conference at stake, the winner still being two victories shy of the Western Conference team that won't make the playoffs. Let 'em.

We aren't proud. A town without baseball, without hockey, some say, without even indoor soccer can't turn its face to any sporting crumb. Can it?

Oh yes it can.

The Bullets have been a better-kept secret these last few months than how Reaganomics is going to kick the economy back on course. Won't the Washington masses pay to watch an NBA team that actually hustles nearly every second of nearly every game? Doesn't pluck sell?

Not before playoff-like games.

If they beat Atlanta today, the Ballard-Mahorn-Johnson-Ruland Bullets will be just one regular-season victory shy of what the Unseld-Hayes-Dandridge Bullets mustered the year they won the NBA title. Washington also was wildly apathetic about that team before the playoffs.

The difference in one team in four years is more than a game, of course. Elvin, Wes and Bobby could--and sometimes did--go on cruise control the entire season and still finish 44-38. Greg's gang has to play to its absolute limit to be 43-39, if the Hawks cooperate this afternoon.

The championship team was coldly efficient on the court and coldly distant off it. Of the regulars, only Grevey smiled much, seemed as though he actually enjoyed games that let men realize their little boy's dreams. This bunch is as fun to be around as it is fun to watch grow, Lally says.

"I've been in this business since '67 (with the largely lamented Dallas Chaparrals)," he said, "and I've never seen guys like this. It's more enjoyable to come here daily (than it was with the title team). Something crazy always happens."

Sometimes, it'll be John Lucas stuffing two basketballs in the rear of his practice sweats during layup drills, a waddling caricature of Rick Mahorn. Often, it'll be Frank Johnson's underwear disappearing, or being replaced. Frankie will check his locker and there, hanging neatly, will be: shirt, slacks, jacket, bra and panties.

They will page each other at airports, tell skycaps to put luggage belonging to little old ladies from Pasadena, or some such, onto their wagons. Drivers have been locked out of their buses, told that wheelchairs would get them to games faster. The team picture was carefully checked to make sure everyone was decent. Everyone wasn't before the first click.

Don Collins once called to say his car had broken down and he'd not make practice. Lally, having taken the call, pointed the receiver toward the players, who in unison shouted: "Give up the cash."

Nobody is sacred.

Gene Shue might be coach of the year, a brilliant God-send finally appreciated, but he's still called Beatlemania now and then in the clubhouse. That's what a frustrated fan in Kansas City yelled at him some weeks back. Soon, Bullets began serenading Shue with: "We love you, ya! ya! ya!"

"It's like a high school team, the way they carry on," Lally said.

They've become very professional on the court, with some dramatic limits. They can't beat anybody very good very often. Try as they might, sputters develop about midway through the third quarter and a fine night's work against the elite teams almost always ends in frustration.

"We lose too many loose balls," Shue complains. "We get out-quicked. When we play the better teams in the fourth quarter, we have problems. Their defense tightens."

And so do the Bullets.

"Seems like our feet won't get going (after those loose balls)," Johnson said. "And they're in crucial situations. Very crucial situations. Maybe we're not aggressive enough."

They had better be against Atlanta today. Only in the NBA would this game be seen as cosmic, worthy of television, with Shue being interviewed by a former player he once drafted for the 76ers (Doug Collins). As usual, the loser in this contest gets two nights in Philly.