Every playoff game this year we have seen a progressively more dominant Elvin Hayes, to the point that yesterday he assumed personal control of a Bullet upset the 76ers deserved to lose but could have won.
Presumably, the Sixers have left a wake-up call for someone during this NBA Eastern Conference final. But not for game one. Most of yesterday they fell into the sluggish, selfish ways that have made them such a joy to root against in the past. Yet they sent the game into overtime with some astonishing luck.
Victory would have been an injustice, something totally alien to every lesson of sport. And Hayes refused to let it happen. Forget the Hayes who either wouldn't - or couldn't - hit the open man against Golden State three years ago. Forget the Hayes who couldn't sink a pressure free throw against Cleveland two years ago, who was over-shadowed by the Houston prodigy, Moses Malone, last year.
In seven games this year, it has been E as in Everything. We have seen Hayes the feeder, Hayes the Scorer and Hayes the Rebounder. Yesterday Hayes did a bit of all of the above, including scoring the Bullets final seven overtime points.
"Last year's team might have lost this one," he said later. "But now we have more stabilizing factors (meaning the addition of Bobby Dandridge). We're just a much better ball club."
Of all the gaudy Hayes numbers, two stand out. He was 8 for 11 from the foul line, including three straight late in overtime after he had missed three of five in the final minutes of regulation.
The new shooting style still resembles the former Gary Player putting stroke, with a bit of a jab at the end. It worked yesterday, though Hayes later said: "Once the ball leaves your hands there's nothing you can do about it. That five minutes that's gone by (since the misses) you can't think about.
"You just shoot it agian.
Then he and Coach Dick Motta eleborated on what Hayes had called these "stabilizing factors."
"During the timeout (between regulation and overtime), we were very composed in the huddle," Hayes said. "Nobody panicked. Last year that wouldn't have happened."
"Last year I had to fight them to sit next to me on the bench," said motta, "and to sit where I want them during timeouts. Now everybody goes where they're supposed to and they are listening to me.
"We've developed a rapport. It's taken some time."
Hayes in the first half yesterday was not especially pleasant on offense but what is known in the trade as "a force" on defense. He blocked four shots and grabbed 10 rebounds. Hayes was six for 11 from the field and scored 20 points the final 29 minutes.
Ordinarily "new E" vows from Hayes are viewed with suspicion here. But since that very thing seems to be happening on the court this playoff he gets a chance to insist:
"You come to a point in your career where you get to a stabilizing point. You've come into the league and been overpowering. You've had to score and rebound, and then you look at who's leading the league in scoring isn't in the playoffs."
Of his occasionally negative press, Hayes said, "Muhammad Ali told me last year that nobody remembers the writeups after a day or so anyway. So forget about them. You can't worry about what's happened four years ago. You just finish one day and prepare for the next."
For the Bullets, the finish yesterday was ever so satisfying. But they prepare for their "tomorrow," here Wednesday for game two, with center Wes Unseld at least uncertain. He left the arena yesterday on crutches, his right ankle in a cast to keep the swelling down.
Both teams had occasion to reflect on seemingly insignificant moments during regulation that suddenly loomed large at overtime. Motta seemed almost to force Earl Strom to call a technical foul on him. The Sixers' Billy Cunningham balanced that error.
The largest of the Sixers' sins, the one all to typical of their soloist attitude on the court, was Lloyd Free on the free-throw line after missing the first of two foul shots will 11 seconds left in regulation and Washington up by two.
Everyone especially his teammates and the Bullets, expected him to make the shot. Free said he wanted to miss badly enough to swoop in for the rebound, put it in and tie the game.
"We'd planned (during a time out) that he'd miss the shot on purpose," Motta said. "But then they lined up with a guard in there for the rebound instead of one of their big guys."
Free missed, the man the Bullets sort of wanted on the free-throw line, Greg Ballard, got the rebound, got smacked and then got the two foul shots at the other end of the court.
"You always want to take the points when you can," Ballard said. "As it turned out, if he'd (Free) made the shot they'd have won in regulation, by one."