What they remembered most vividly, after 81 games, was Larry Bird. A three-pointer by Wes Matthews that also caused an overtime--and a loss--had not been forgotten; neither was blowing a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter and losing, in regulation, to Kansas City. Or being beaten twice in January by cloddish Cleveland, and once by harmless Houston.

Still, after a remarkable season that ended one victory shy of the playoffs, the defeat that most galls most Bullets was that night 16 days ago in Capital Centre, when Bird was absurd. Somehow, he fluttered under Don Collins and put up a 24-footer that went in with two seconds left. The Celtics won by three in overtime.

"I can still see him hit it," said trainer John Lally. "If Bird wasn't such a nice guy, he'd be awfully easy to hate about now."

Now was Sad Saturday.

For the 13th time in 16 games, the Bullets had won, 102-95, over the Detroit Pistons at home. But the back door to the playoffs had been slammed shut when the Hawks beat Milwaukee in Atlanta. Sad Saturday was when The End came before the end. By a day, in fact.

"The only thing worse," a Bullet mumbled, "is we still have to play in Cleveland (last night)."

Until the final bit of hope was tamped, Centre officials had been prompt about posting the Hawks-Bucks partial scores on the cloud-high scoreboards at each end of the arena. If the final number was flashed, though, most of us missed it. All of a sudden there was a blank. No news was bad news.

So the consolation for the Bullets is very likely being the best team in memory not to make the NBA playoffs. When every body was well, the Bullets could beat everybody in the NBA, with the exception of a healthy and inspired Philadelphia 76ers. When they were hurt and out of sync, they could beat nobody.

As in Houston, Golden State and Cleveland twice during a nine-game sour streak that began with the new year. Mathematically, the Bullets were eliminated from the playoffs at 9:28 p.m. Saturday; realistically, they lost out in January.

"Losing to the weaker teams shows you how weak we really were," Coach Gene Shue said.

He was referring to more than injuries.

"Same players as last year," he continued, "but different chemistry. The attitude wasn't the same (at the beginning of the season). That's a very normal thing. The guys last year achieved a lot, and it was all new and exciting. That made (motivation) harder. Then the injuries made it even harder."

All that made the whoosh down the stretch so much more satisfying.

"Incredible," Shue said. "Much more rewarding than last season, which I said then was incredible. Last year was easy (to coach); this year was absolute work from start to finish. I need a rest. I'm emotionally down."

But not low enough to avoid thinking about the future.

"I'm not one to say that just because we finished strong and competed well against the strong teams that we don't need help," he said. "This doesn't mean there won't be major changes. We definitely need a big player to fit in with (Rick) Mahorn and (Jeff) Ruland. And backcourt help. And a creative-type forward, if possible."

That covers the court. Inside and outside, on the side, the Bullets need dominance and depth.

Ruland's right wrist was throbbing so badly once Saturday after he was fouled that referee Earl Strom ordered a phantom wet spot toweled as a few seconds of relief. Ruland still shot an air ball with his first free throw and clanged the second hard off the back of the rim.

Greg Ballard has been playing with a bad back.

"Injuries are part of the deal," Lally admitted. "Havlicek always said he treated every shot, every rebound, every loose ball like it was the last of his career. Lotta times this year, we didn't do that."

Each year about now, free of charge, I offer Abe Pollin a way to make the Bullets better. Mostly, he has followed other advice. Which still does not deter the notion that Adrian Dantley would be a fine solution to the creative-type-forward problem.

The Bullets have enough draft choices (their own and the Lakers' in the first round and at least two in the second) to drastically alter the team. Send a package to Utah and bring Dantley back home. He would increase season-ticket sales; before his wrist injury, he had been creative enough to get 30 or so points each game for most of the last two seasons.

Like Ruland, Dantley is most comfortable close to the basket. That could be troublesome, except Ruland also had a jump shot at Iona he has yet to dust off regularly with the Bullets. Dantley's defense against larger forwards has not been strong.

But he's exactly what the Bullets lack, a point machine; even better, he's also one of the few stars in the league who would blend into the blue-collar Bullets.