Washington Bullets guard Jeff Malone has an idea about arousing interest in tonight's NBA exhibition opener in Muskegon, Mich., against the Detroit Pistons, the team that ended the Bullets' 1986-87 season.

"They're up on us three games to none right now and this is the fourth game of the series," he said with a laugh. "If we win {tonight} then they have to play us again because it's a best of seven."

The first three games came last April, when Detroit swept the Bullets in the opening round of the playoffs. It's doubtful that the NBA would go along with Malone's idea to extend the series; even more doubtful that anyone who witnessed Washington's 40-point halftime deficit in Game 2 would want the league to do so.

What tonight's game does represent is the Bullets' first opportunity at redemption for perhaps the worst first-round playoff performance in the league last season, one that left a final, sour taste to a season that seldom met expectations.

"Playing Detroit is where we left off last year but things are a little different -- I don't even know who they have on their team," said Coach Kevin Loughery yesterday at Fort Meade.

The Bullets team that will be playing is virtually the same one that lost to the Central Division team last spring. That could be a problem for the Bullets in 1987-88 because of the apparent improvement of other Eastern Conference squads such as Chicago, Cleveland and New York.

On paper, Cleveland and New York could possibly overtake Washington for a playoff spot next spring. Thus far at least, the Bullets are gambling that their last postseason was an aberration and that, minus their usual spate of injuries, they'll not only be able to hold off those teams but also rise in the standings.

"We want to see how people have improved," Loughery said. "Everyone coming back has to prove that they can do the job at whatever position they play."

The team has worked almost incessantly on some fundamentals: setting screens, blocking out on rebounds and fully executing offensive plays. Loughery is adding a number of defensive schemes.

"This is the same team, so it looks like we'll have to improve from within," he said. "We have to shoot and rebound better with what we have. We still have some decisions to make on this team and the players here have to see where they fit in."

For tonight at least, five of the 17 players in camp don't fit in at all. Rookies Dale Blaney, John Campbell, Patrick Fairs, Herb Johnson and Duane Washington will stay behind to work out with assistant Bill Blair at Fort Meade over the weekend.

"It's better this way," said Loughery. "I don't want to take guys and have them play just two minutes or four minutes of the game."

The only players without NBA experience who are traveling with the team are free agent David Henderson and first-round pick Tyrone Bogues. They probably will see plenty of action together in the back court behind Jeff Malone and the point guard tandem of Michael Adams and Ennis Whatley.

In the front court, the starters likely will be Moses Malone at center with Terry Catledge and Jay Vincent at forward, with Malone seeing limited action. Of the group, perhaps no one is looking forward to playing more than Vincent, one of the returning Bullets with the most to prove.

The Bullets acquired him just over a year ago from Dallas, expecting him to play a major role. But he ruptured a tendon in the first exhibition game and missed the first 30 games of the regular season. When he did return, he did not become an integral part of the team. Many observers speculated that he would be traded before training camp.

Some Bullets officials believed he was unhappy with the team, but he came to camp in surprisingly good shape and Loughery has been impressed.

"I definitely feel better than I did coming in last year," Vincent said. "Now I'm going after things more, whereas last season I'd wait, trying to adapt to things. They got me to produce last year and that didn't happen, but I want to show them that I'm the player they thought I was."