"We could see he wasn't in condition and we started to worry about him," Bernie Bickerstaff said of Elvin Hayes. "We felt he wanted out, like he was trying to play his way out of here."

The point of reference was still this season, though seven months and 90 games ago. Each NBA season seems a lifetime and this one has seen a remarkable transformation in the dominant Bullet, from the sulking "e" of November and parts of February to the team-conscious "E" of the playoffs.

"The guy is receptive to coaching now, Bickerstaff, the Bullets' assistant coach, said. "He's free. He's playing free. He can take a joke now, and if he throws a bad pass he'll say, 'My fault.' That's a big thing for E.

"It used to be that if he tripped he'd blamed it on someone else. But when (for perhaps the first time in his 10-year NBA career) he can say, 'Hey, my fault,' that's a lot of pressure off."

For Hayes, the seasonal nadir came in game six of the regular season, Nov. 5 against the Rockets in Houston. He was zero for seven from the field and scored just three points - and spent a good deal of time on the bench in a public snit.

Apparently, both Dick Motta, the head coach, and Bickerstaff went one on one with Hayes - hard - with Bickerstaff especially tough.

"I just had to say what was on my mind," Bickerstaff said. "I've always been that way. But give that guy a lot of credit. He responded to it."

Friday night was another pivotal point for Hayes, for it showed he now has the capacity to force himself out of the sort of playoff frazzle that has hampered him so often in prior years.

It began just after the opening tip, when Hayes took a baseline pass almost directly beneath the basket. What seemed a sure layup - and possible three-point play - became 76ers' ball almost immediately. Caldwell Jones not only blocked the shot, he also forced the ball off Hayes and out of bounds.

Clearly shaken, Hayes took a pass the next time down court and, with three Sixers clawing at him, let fly with a 15-footer that barely made it to the front of the rim. On the third Bullets' possession, Hayes was caught for an offensive foul after a Bobby Dandridge miss.

The crowd sensed this might be an oh-for-the-night performance from Hayes - and the end of the playoffs for the Bullets, for a loss in game six in Washington would almost guarantee a loss in game seven in Philadelphia today.

In other years, when Hayes either was forced to carry the offensive burden or thought that way, the Bullets would have been doomed. But they have Dandridge now, and Friday he was able to keep the Bullets in contention while Hayes was gathering his wits.

Hayes did not score a point the first quarter, but he kept working. In the second quarter, he got his first two baskets, on offensive rebounds, but slipped into his free-throw miseries of the past.

In a foul-shooting slump during important games, Hayes is almost painful to watch. Friday he would spin te ball in his hands even after raising it to shooting position, as though searching for a handle.

Like Wilt Chamberlain, Hayes is able to make the difficult chores in basketball seem simple and the easiest parts of the game seem almost impossible. He missed his first two foul shots and three of his first four.

Jones was the clear winner over Hayes the first half, but the Bullets were ahead. Then 3 1/2 minutes into the third quarter Hayes tried a turnaround jumper on Jones - and the ball went in.

So Hayes tried another turnaround on Jones next time, from even farther out. That also caromed off the backboard and through the net. All of a sudden Hayes was a force again, and on the next Bullet possession guard Henry Bibby dropped off Larry Wright to help Jones.

That left Wright free, 15 feet from the basket, and Hayes slipped a pass to him. Two points. Moments later Hayes scored on another turnaround on Jones, this time with a quick move to spoil the defender's rhythm.

Buoyed, Hayes even made three of four free throws with slightly more than four minutes left in the quarter. He hardly was the essence of confidence in the final dramatic moments, but neither was anyone else on either team. And he took the charge from Lloyd Free that assured victory in the final six seconds.

When Hayes was going through that November low, his former coach, K. C. Jones, had said: "If he could just be consistent with an honest effort. That's the only thing that holds him back.

"When you're as close to a person as I was to E, you know whether he's devious or not. And that is not the case with E. He's really not that way. He wants to be part of a championship team.

"But it's difficult for him to admit what he would like to admit. But what any championship team needs is a four-for-one attitude, four guys sacrificing so one can do what has to be done, everyone scrapping and hustling.

"Really, it's up for E himself."

And Hayes has done almost exactly what Jones had hoped.

"I'd like to see something good happen to him," Jones added. "It could do wonders for him."

It already has.