OAKLAND, FEB. 28 -- Shortly after torching the Suns for 47 points in Saturday night's 116-106 Washington victory in Phoenix -- 28 in the third period -- a giddy Jeff Malone was ready to talk.

About defense.

"Look at it, just think about it," the Bullets' shooting guard said. "I haven't always shot the ball well on this trip, but I think I've played pretty good defense. Look at who I've been playing against."

On the first seven stops of the eight-game trip that ends with a game against the Golden State Warriors here Monday night, Malone has come upon a virtual Who's Who among off guards.

Of the magnificent seven -- Rolando Blackman (Dallas), Alvin Robertson (San Antonio), Sleepy Floyd (Houston), Lafayette Lever (Denver), Byron Scott (Los Angeles), Reggie Theus (Sacramento) and Walter Davis (Phoenix) -- only Scott has yet to play in at least one all-star game and that Laker is having a career season.

Bothered by a jammed finger on his right hand, Malone struggled offensively early in the trip. In games two, three and four -- against San Antonio, Houston and Denver -- the veteran was 19 of 54 (35 percent) from the field. Even so, Blackman and Lever (18 points each) were the only opponents among the seven to reach their respective scoring averages against Malone.

But it wasn't because of stifling defense that Malone twice made the NBA all-star roster himself.

Rediscovering his true calling -- shooting -- in his last two games, he's hit 32 of 48 (67 percent) from the field and scored season highs of 35 and then 47 to lift his average on the trip to 25.7 points. If an 11-point clunker against Denver is thrown out, that average jumps to more than 28.

The rise in Malone's fortunes the last two games reflects that of his team.

A week ago, it appeared that for all intents and purposes their season was on the brink of ending. Now, a win against the Warriors, who are barely hovering above the cellar of the Pacific Division, would give the Bullets a 4-4 split on the arduous trip and a stride in the neck-and-neck race with New York and Philadelphia for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

"Things are just working now," Coach Wes Unseld said.

"I thought we played pretty decently against Denver. We started decently against Los Angeles and came back against Houston. {The Bullets lost all three.}

"Dallas {a 123-108 defeat on Feb. 17 to start the trip} was probably the only game that I didn't think we were really in at all."

Washington has shown it can compete against some of the better teams in the league -- it's winning that has come hard.

Now 13-13 under Unseld, the Bullets have yet to lose by more than 16 points and seven of the last 11 defeats have been by a total of 25 points.

It's probably no coincidence that the three victories have been against sub-.500 teams, while the four losses have been to teams among the NBA's elite eight. Washington hasn't beaten a team with a record currently above .500 since a Jan. 14 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks.

And while Sacramento and Phoenix are definitely in the lower echelon, it probably isn't coincidental either that the Bullets have gotten a big lift in the last two games from their newest pair of starting forwards, John Williams and Charles Jones.

When Bernard King was sidelined with a lower back strain the past three games, Jones replaced him. Williams moved ahead of Terry Catledge to provide the Bullets with a third ball-handler and outside shooter.

Jones made a big play in the final minute in Phoenix, blocking a driving layup by Eddie Johnson. Williams' biggest contributions are more subtle -- a crunching pick here, a deft touch pass there. His ability to function both inside and out make him a highly desirable talent, which is why the Suns spoke with the Bullets about the idea of acquiring both him and Jeff Malone.

Although a deal with the Suns would have moved Williams closer to his home Los Angeles, the 21-year-old (in his second season he's still the youngest player in the NBA) said he is more than happy it didn't happen -- especially now that he's in the starting lineup.

"It's been nice, very nice. I can get into the flow of things right away," he said. "It's been so long since I've started, I can't remember when the last time was. Probably in the first four or five games when things weren't going very well."

Things have certainly been looking up for Williams.

Beginning with a career-high 28-point effort against Milwaukee on Feb. 15, he has averaged 17.6 points in eight games, seven points more than his norm prior to the run.