It is a measure of where the Washington Bullets have come the first half of this NBA season that their last two performances have left them so disappointed. They considered Indiana and Dallas, if not lesser teams, certainly beatable ones.

But the Bullets failed to execute in the final minutes against the Pacers and Mavericks and lost close home games to sub-.500 teams, splitting their four-game homestand. It left Washington 18-23 at the midway point, tied with New York for third place in the Atlantic Division.

After the preseason, many thought Miami was a better team, so what Washington did the first half was more than surprising. Right now the Bullets are tied for the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a game ahead of Indiana. Along with New York, they're just 3 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers.

"A month ago, or six weeks ago, we might have been happy to play close," Bullets General Manager John Nash said. "We've had a taste of success and I think we're disappointed we let two games get away that we very easily could have won."

"We've played teams that we can beat, that we should beat," said forward Harvey Grant, the most pleasant individual surprise for the Bullets this season. "We can't let those kind of games slip away if we're looking forward to the playoffs. Those type of games come back to haunt you."

Still, these losses shouldn't take away from 41 games that have proven the Bullets may be just one impact player, or a healthy John Williams, away from turning around their fortunes in a big way. Grant's development, along with the potential the Bullets see in second-year center Pervis Ellison, gives Washington some long-term hope in the frontcourt.

Haywoode Workman has shown he can run an NBA team, and if he has problems with the top-shelf point guards in the league, who doesn't? So far, off-guard Darrell Walker's Achilles' tendons have held up, the beneficiaries of daily treatments. When he's gotten a chance to play, rookie guard A. J. English has shown offensive skills.

Williams is close to returning. Suddenly, Nash has found that other general managers aren't nearly as forward about potential trades with Washington.

The Trail Blazers talked with the Bullets about "one of our shooters off the bench," Nash said. Tom Hammonds, Greg Foster, Ellison and Byron Irvin aren't shooters, English is a rookie and Ledell Eackles hasn't shown any reason for outside interest, which leaves Mark Alarie, but since Portland acquired Walter Davis last week, a trade with the Trail Blazers is unlikely.

"I don't know that there's anything that we can do that would get us homecourt advantage," Nash said. "Consequently, I think that I would prefer to just monitor the situation. Now, if we start to go into a nosedive and we're not playing well, you reevaluate it.

"I think {Coach} Wes {Unseld} has a number of people he can go to. If some are less productive, maybe he can give others a chance. And remember, it's not the worst thing in the world for a team like ourselves, that's young, to get a lottery player. Because we're experimenting, because we're trying to get a read on John Williams when he gets back, if we don't make the playoffs, hopefully we get another piece, another weapon."

But the object is making the postseason. And instead of getting a little breathing room on New York, which is out west for five games, the Bullets are even with the Knicks going into a tough week that begins tonight with a visit to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play the Pistons. After hosting Miami Tuesday, Washington goes to New York Thursday for a big matchup with the Knicks, comes home for a rematch with the Pistons Friday and goes to Boston Sunday.