After the Washington Bullets' 114-110 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, Coach Wes Unseld was asked if his team's ability to hang tough in game after game -- albeit so often in vain -- could be construed positively, perhaps along the lines of character-building.

Unseld bristled.

"It seems like I'm hearing that every night," he said. "You build character in high school, I want to win games. Perhaps somewhere down the road it may help, but I want my pleasure now."

Somewhere down the road is now for the Bullets, who begin a two-week, eight-game trek out west tonight against the Dallas Mavericks at Reunion Arena. The Bullets are 2 1/2 games out of the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth, so anything less than a break-even trip could leave them out in the cold this spring.

That is, if the Bullets' postseason hopes haven't already been irreparably damaged by their inability to win close games -- particularly against their rivals for playoff spots.

The Bullets' 8-2 January surge for Unseld after their dreadful 8-19 start cost Kevin Loughery his job as coach catapulted them back into the playoff picture. But surge has turned to dirge.

Now 18-28, Washington has lost only three games by more than 10 points under Unseld, the other six defeats coming by a combined 19 points. But each loss was against Eastern Conference competition.

Since Jan. 20, in games against Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee and New York, the Bullets are 4-5, with three wins over the 76ers and one against the Knicks. Since their high water mark of 17-22 on Jan. 28, the Bullets have gone 1-6, beating only New Jersey, a team already virtually out of the race.

Unseld says his "thoughts aren't on the playoffs but on the effort we put in every night," yet he had to admit that the loss to the Bucks was important "because it was a home game, and now we're out for eight games and two weeks."

Unseld's initial reaction aside, the Bullets' play of late does perhaps augur well for their extended trip. Many of the earlier losses to contending teams were given away. But in the most recent ones, including the second half of Monday's and Saturday's 105-103 game in Atlanta, Washington played well.

Another encouraging sign from Monday was the performance of the second unit, which brought the Bullets back from a 30-point third-quarter deficit. Led by John Williams, accompanied by Frank Johnson, Tyrone Bogues, Charles Jones and Mark Alarie, they trapped and pressed into contention.

Alarie was a rookie with the Denver Nuggets last season, averaging 17.3 minutes per game. With the Bullets, he's had 12 minutes per game, averaging 5.4 points. In the first three games after the all-star break, Alarie played a total of 18 minutes. In the fourth, Monday, he got 13 minutes.

"You just can't turn it on and off, you need time to get in shape," he said of his sudden switch from virtual inactivity. "Maybe I hadn't lost it aerobically but more in trying to get a feel for the game. I was just happy to get the chance to play. I feel as a unit we were more than effective."

As good as they were, Unseld realizes the reserves can't -- and shouldn't -- be expected to bail out the starters. However, the additional harassment and strength could help make their Western Conference opponents uncomfortable in a style of play they rarely see.

"It's just two different games," said Cotton Fitzsimmons, director of player personnel for the Phoenix Suns. "In the East, the idea is to get it down on the blocks {the low post} and constantly physically force it in to the basket. We're not as worried about that in the West."

Unseld said that, ideally, the Bullets will combine strength and finesse among all 12 players.

"They {the second unit} gave a great effort but we didn't get that from one of our other groups," he said, obviously meaning the starters, who struggled, especially from the perimeter, against Milwaukee. "What I want to see is both groups put it together."