It was generally assumed that, given the retirement of center Bob Lanier and the trading of Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks would be a changed team this season.

One thing that didn't change, however, was Coach Don Nelson and his defense-first philosophy, one that Nelson's Bucks imposed upon the Washington Bullets in a 105-79 victory Wednesday night.

"We play defense hard night in and night out. Nellie wouldn't stand for anything else," said guard Craig Hodges, one of this season's new Bucks.

Milwaukee led the NBA in averaging fewest points allowed last season, yielding 101.5 per game. After three games this season, that is down to just over 98 points.

Despite the additions and subtractions on the roster, defense is a Milwaukee constant, according to Nelson.

"I would have to say that, on the surface, Sidney Moncrief (the NBA's defensive player of the year the last two seasons) is our only outstanding defender," said Nelson. "That's not to say there can't be good team defense. If it's important to the coach, it should be important to the players."

Nelson felt former Clipper Terry Cummings learned that lesson Wednesday night. Despite shooting zero for eight in the first half, Cummings still came in for postgame praise from Nelson.

"After the first two weeks of training camp, Terry came to me and said now he knew why we led the league in defense," Nelson said. "Tonight he didn't have a great offensive game, but he rebounded and played defense extremely well. Now he knows there are other areas of basketball besides scoring that are important."

Like consistency, something the Bullets have been lacking in the early going this season. "I understand the problem; we just have to work through it and it's gonna take some time," Coach Gene Shue said.

The latest of the Bullets to be injured is guard Frank Johnson. After straining his right hamstring muscle during the 119-104 victory over Atlanta Tuesday, he didn't accompany the team here for Wednesday's game.

Johnson also was unable to practice today. Trainer John Lally said Johnson's condition is "day to day." If he is unable to play in Friday's 7:30 p.m. rematch against the Bucks at Capital Centre, there's a chance Johnson could be placed on the injured list. He would replace Jeff Malone, who is eligible to play the following night against the Hawks in Atlanta.

Such a move would grant a reprieve of sorts to Charles Davis or Guy Williams. Either was likely to be cut from the roster upon Malone's return.

But first there's the matter of Friday's game against the Bucks and the reacquisition of the Bullets' intensity. Nelson doesn't think it will take long. "This team's struggling but there's a reason for that," he said. "I'm a Gene Shue fan; this team will be tough to beat."

Shue hopes Nelson is right. "Tuesday night's game was more fun, a better show than the Bullets have had in Cap Centre for a long time," he said. "But we aren't at that stage of cohesiveness yet. It's just time."

"I hope that's all it is," forward Jeff Ruland said. As to the question of how much time, Ruland begged off. "If I knew the answer to that I'd be a prophet and not in basketball," he said.