The 10,839 fans who showed up last night for the Chicago-Washington game at Capital Centre received a double treat: a Bullet victory and the first indication that Phil Chenier is on the road back.
It was like old times in the fourth period, Chenier and Elvin Hayes contributing 22 of the Bullets' last 24 points to pull out a 124-113 victory after Washington once was up by 24 points.
This was the Chenier of past glories. He was popping in his picture jump shot in traffic and wide open. He played with confidence, something he attributed in part to the support of the crowd.
"I have felt really good since coming home and playing in front of the fans here," he said. "They have been cheering me and that's helped. I've felt really good about it."
Chenier, who had back surgery in September, finished with 17 points, making seven of nine shots and three of four free throws.
Hayes was more spectacular. He made his first seven attempts, 13 of 16 for the game. His 33 points marked the fourth time in the last five contests he has surpassed the 30-point level.
Chenier has been struggling since his return from the injured reserve list seven games ago. But last night's effort was the type needed to catch Coach Dick Motta's eye and earn Chenier added playing time.
And it couldn't have come at a better moment for him. Starting guard Kevin Grevey, hampered by a hamstring pull, has been advised by team physician Stanford Lavine to rest the injury for 10 days.
The leaves an opening for Chenier to back up Grevey's place. But until the Chicago game. Motta admittedly felt Chenier hadn't done much to warrant more than spot time.
"A game like he had has to help our confidence in him," said Motta. "Hey, he missed a lot of time with his back. He isn't going to come back all at once. With Kevin out, this is good for Phil. It helps his outlook and we can use him if he plays well. So the team benefits."
Although Chenier made nine pressure points and picked up an assist in the final six minutes after Chicago had closed to 102-99, he downplayed any great happiness about being in "when things were still being decided.
"I'm just struggling for minutes," he said. "I don't care when they come. This is a good start for me. I can build from here. I will take the time whenever it comes."
This is new role for Chenier. He has been a starter in the NBA except for a couple of months at the beginning of last season. He says the adjustment to coming off the bench has been difficult.
"You have to get yourself geared to it," he said. "But I knew it was going to be this way. I feel stronger every day, all I can do is try to get better and bide my time. That means I have to do the best every second I play."
He certainly fulfilled that goal last night. In 10 minutes of the opening half, he scored eight points, hitting three of four shots. In eight minutes of the second, he was four of five.
For much of the game, the Bullets were equally consistent. In the opening 30 minutes, they put on what Motta described as "an absolute basketball clinic. We executed, we ran our fast break, we shot well and we set up when we didn't have a break."
But it came too easy for the league leaders. After shooting almost 70 percent in the first quarter and converting 34 of their first 50 attempts for a 24-point margin, they lost their touch. They went three for 24 and suddenly Chicago was threatening an upset.
Motta called time and the short rest did wonders. Chenier immediately swished a 15-footer and the Bullets took off. They were perfect on their last 10 tries, with Chenier making four and Hayes five.
Against that firepower, the struggling Bulls were overwhelmed. Hayes especially seemed to toy with them. Instead of taking his usual turn-around, fallaway jumper, he spent most of the game wheeling and facing his defender and, on his tiptoes banking the ball off the boards.
He played only 35 minutes and didn't score in the second quarter, but he easily could have had 40 points. He was only seven of 13 from the line and he missed a back-to-the-basket, over-the-head stuff that Motta said "would have brought the house down if it had gone in. I have never seen that one from him before. If it goes in, we win by 60."