Elvin Hayes has gained all-star recognition every season of his 10-year National Basketball Association career mostly because of his offensive statistics. But his shot blocking and defensive skills may be more important to the Bullets in their bid to advance to the final of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Tuesday night, Hayes provided the shot-blocking threat and the defense against San Antonio all-star forward Larry kenon that Washington needs to get by the Spurs in their semi-final. Hayes also was able to contribute substantially on offense with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
"We talked about giving them something to think about when they drive down the middle," said Hayes, who was not nearly as aggresive trying to block shots in the opening-game loss Sunday. "We wanted to clog things up and not give them the freedom on offense they had.
"You have to force them to take shots they don't normally take. That way, it might affect their shooting. Kenon didn't shoot as well as in the second game (four for 16) as he has and neither did the team (47 percent)."
Hayes blocked six shots and changed the course of at least six more by intimidation. He was wandering as far out as the foul line in the quest of blocks, often times challenging even George Gervin.
He bottled up Kenon, the Spurs' No. 2 scorer and the player the Bullets feel they have to control because there is little way to stop Gervin.
Kenon is a streak shooter who loves a fast-paced game. His coach, Doug Moe, says he is the best in the league at grabbing a rebound and starting a fast break by dribbing the ball out of traffic and racing down court.
Hayes never let him get into a shooting spurt Tuesday and cut off most of Kenon's attempts to begin breaks. Hayes did get help from the Bullet's unusually torried shooting, 57 percent.
"It's tough to fast break when they are putting the ball in," said Kenon, who downplayed Hayes' defense. "I hurt myself the way I was shooting more than anyone did defending me."
Without Kenon's points, Gervin has to carry much of the offensive load. Although the Bullets have been unable to prevent him from "scoring almost at will in the first two games, he alone can't beat the Bullets.
Kenon's importance to San Antonio is illustrated by his performances in their three victories over Washington this season. In each game, he scored at least 19 points, and had 22 Sunday. But in their three losses to Washington, he was held to 14 points each time.
"The Hayes-Kenon matchup is vitally important to us," said Washington Coach Dick Motta. "If Gervin gets too much help from him, our hob is made that much tougher. But Elvin is going after it now. He wants to win this serious very badly."
Hayes got off to a shaky start in the playoffs with a foul-plagued 10-point, 12-rebound effort in the opening game of the Atlanta miniseries. But he has come back to average 21 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 51 percent in the four postseason contests Washington has played.
Hayes also is passing well. When opponents double-team him underneath, he is looking outside for open teammates instead of forcing shots, a habit that often has hurt the Bullets in the past.
"If I'm being guarded that closely, somebody has to be open and we have to take advantage of it," said Hayes. "If they don't adjust, we can keep passing and I can concentrate on rebounding and defense.
"I though we really came out and played hard Tuesday. We wanted the game, because we knew we could win one in San Antonio. I've been saying that right along, even though not everyone agreed with me."
Although Hayes maintains that he performs as well in playoffs as he does in the regular season, he is aware that some of his critics feel otherwise. He seemed tight and uneasy against Atlanta, but now is loose and relaxed. The change is evident in his play.
Asked him Tuesday night's game if he could play much better, he smiled, said no, and talked about his role on the club.
"We each have a job to do and I'm trying my best to do mine," he said. "That's the only way we are going to win this series. We were aggressive tonight and fired up. People didn't think we were going to do anything in this series and we wanted to prove different."
In order for Hayes to keep up his defense, the Bullets must cover up inside when he leaves his man. The Spurs did not adjest Tuesday, but Motta expects them to react better Friday.
"I though we adjusted well and did the things we had to do to win the second game," said Motta. "Now they have time to think about what they have to change. This is when these series really get interesting."
Friday night's game will start at 9 o'clock, so that those celebrating Pass-over will have more time to get to Capital Centre . . .