Judging from the volume of the noise in the Washington Bullets' locker room after their 104-90 victory over the New York Knicks Thursday night at Capital Centre, one could have thought Washington had made the NBA finals. Even the most passionate dreamer would have to concede, though, that just making the playoffs is a more realistic step. The Bullets will have a chance to make some headway toward that goal tonight, when they face the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio.

Now 9-3 under Coach Wes Unseld and 17-22 overall, the Bullets are in ninth place in the race for the eight Eastern Conference playoff spots. They are one game behind Philadelphia and two behind the Cavaliers.

Part of the Bullets' recent surge has been individual sacrifice. For example, Moses Malone's day Thursday began in Boston, with the veteran center wondering why he played just 27 minutes in a 106-100 loss to Boston the night before. It ended with him scoring 30 points and tying his season high of 17 rebounds in the win over New York.

"That's just how it goes sometimes," Moses Malone said. "I wasn't upset, I just wanted to win. My main concern is winning; whenever I get to play I'm there to win."

This would be a good time for all of the Bullets to be of a similar mind. The NBA schedule is nothing if not a series of fits and starts, usually dependent on a team's travel plans. Between mid-December and mid-January, Washington played 11 of 13 games at home. It took victories in the final four home games to lift its record in that stretch to 6-7.

Now that things have started to turn around, the Bullets are beginning a stretch where they'll play 12 of their next 15 games on the road.

All those road games might appear to not bode well for Washington's playoff hopes. However, with three games against Cleveland in the next 10 days and two each against the Knicks and New Jersey Nets, the Bullets could put themselves in a position to withstand their longest road trip of the season, an eight-game, two-week trek, starting Feb. 16.

"If you had a four- or five-game cushion {over .500} you'd feel better before beginning a stretch like we've got coming up," said assistant coach Bill Blair.

This season, it probably will take at least a .500 record to make the playoffs. Currently 20-21, the Cavaliers are in the cellar of the NBA's most competitive division, the Central. Second-year players Ron Harper, John (Hot Rod) Williams and Brad Daugherty comprise the nucleus of one of the league's youngest teams.

Daugherty, a center from North Carolina, was named to the Eastern Conference all-star team earlier this week. He'll serve as a backup to Moses Malone, the East starter. The other pivot man for the East team, former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing, bore the brunt of Malone's effort against the Knicks and got into early foul trouble trying to stop his bullish moves.

Malone's points moved him into 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Malone has a 12-year total of 20,904 points. On the combined NBA/ABA scoring list, he is 13th with 23,075 points.

"It was the kind of game we have to win. We have to beat New York," Malone said. " . . . I'm not concerned about history."