"Our one basic need." Dick Motta was saying after the Bullets had been laid to rest by some rockets from some Rockets, "is a big, strong overpowering defensive guard." He was speaking generally: he was thinking of Mike Newlin, and the play that well might symbolize the Bullets' annual demise.

It came with 43 seconds left in the game and the Bullets down by four points. Mitch Kupchak had just missed a long baseline jumper and the ball was bouncing near the free-throw line. It was there for anyone who wanted it badly enough it quickly became Newlin's because he took a bellywhopper of a dive from about 10 feet away and cradled it to his chest.

"I shouldn't be commented for that," Newlin said to some witnesses accustomed to seeing only Kupchak with that sort of spirit on the Bullets. "That should be something everyone does - and we do. You can look at the elbows on this team and see that.

"If I had a player who wouldn't do it, he simply would not be playing. That's a basic part of the game, like free throws. You have some exuberant players, Kupchak and (Larry) Wright. It's something the team needs more of."

Which is exactly what Motta was implying a short time later and a short distance away. He might well have been thinking: Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, where are you when I need you? In so many situations that evolve into tests of wills, the Bullets lose.

With just six minutes gone in the game, Calvin Murphy and Chenier both had their hands on a rebound near the free-trow line. Murphy wrestled it away - and scored on a 10-foot jumper.

"There'll be a lot of changes," general manager Bob Ferry said. Whether they will be more the natural process of age (Dave Bing, Wes Unseld, etc.) being replaced by youth or a drastic overhaul of the foundation is uncertain, because Ferry also has said: "Elvin Hayes gets you to the playoffs."

But Hayes in the regular season and Hayes in the playoffs is the difference between E and e. Motta seemed candid about Hayes, at least for a Bullet coach. Or it could be the public smokescreen of a coach who might privately beliebe he has the nucleus - and the draft choice - to dangle Hayes to the NBA fishers of forwards.

"I'll be truthful," Motta said. "A lot of my friends warned me. But they were wrong. I thought he had a great year, a tremendous year." He used a Chicago analogy in response to a question of whether Hayes would be a Bullet next season.

"The year the Mets burst by the Cubs," he said, "(Ron) Santo was having a little fun, because this (sports) is a little boy's game, after all. But no one would leave him alone. They had an attractive team - and a good one - but they started trying to break them up.

"And I thought they made a horrible mistake."

With Hayes, the Bullets have the potential for a fine future. Recall that this was a team altered dastically after a horrid start.

"For a while, it was like threading a needle with two thumbs." Motta volunteered. And it went long enough for the Rockets, and exceedingly young team on the rise, to gain enough of an advantage to win the Bullet's division.

"What I liked this year was that I didn't see the Bullets fold," Motta added. "That was what I was warned about, what I was afraid of. Even today we held our poise. What can you do about that?"

"I've been searching, but I can't find any big excuses, although I've got some wishes." One could be a replay of the final 2 1/2 minutes, because no mortals could possibly repeat the long-range shooting of Newlin and Rudy Tom Janovich that yielded the 108-103 victory.

"They defy a lot of NBA percentages," Motta said, "because after all, that's what you want them doing, shooting from the perimeter. But they do it, because they have that one equalizer in the middle - Moses Malone. If they miss, there's a pretty good chance he'll get it back up and in. Or at least keep it alive.

"Moses Malone is going to be a dominant force in this League."

In victory, the Rockets were taking verbal swipes at the losers.

"They seemed a little down today," said John Johnson. "They didn't seem together. They've been fighting among themselves (an apparent reference to the I've-got-to-do-everything statement of Hayes), and this is not time to be fighting among yourselves.

"In this series, Elvin was talking and Dwight Jones was playing."

"Wes never was a scorer," said Murphy. "He's never been a scorer. But he's paid his dues - and the Bullets have always won big with him. This (the Bullets' losing the best-of-seven series) has nothing to do with Wes."

Of course, it has to do with somebody, or somebodies who may not return. With the fourth pick in the draft and another in the first round, the Bullets ought to be better without wholesale substractions.

But pressure at the gate could force major revisions. Those who came to Capital Centre yesterday came not to bury the Bullets. But flocks of falls chose not to attend at all, and in some ways that is even worse.