The more Atlanta guard Terry Furlow talked about Elvin Hayes being a "cheap-shot artist" last week, the more Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullets' assistant coach, smiled. He knew Furlow was making a big mistake.
"I remember once in Chicago when Dick (Motta) was coaching there," thought Bob Love had done a good job against Elvin in a game.
"Well, Love wouldn't leave it alone. He talked about it and Elvin heard. The next time Chicago came to town, I think Elvin had 42 off of him."
If Furlow had been wise, he would have picked on Bob Dandridge, the othe Bullet forward. Dandridge stopped reading the newspapers early last week "so nothing would interfere with my concentration. I didn't want to know what anyone was saying or writing about us."
But Hayes is not a self-motivator like Dandridge. He needs an occassional emotional injection and Furlow's verbal needles filled that prscription precisely.
The result was a 39-point, 15-rebound, three-block performance by a supercharged Hayes that kept Washington in Sunday's seventh game against Atlanta until Dandridge could finish off the Hawks with one of his characteristic, fourth-quarter pressure scoring outbursts.
"When Elvin has that look on his face like he did to start the game, you give him the ball," said guard Larry Wright.
"Did you see Elvin? I think he was up for the game." said center Wes Unseld."Who can stop him when he plays like that?"
Furlow told Hayes Sunday night that he didn't mean everything he had said about the Bullet forward. But the damage already had been done. Hayes, who admits he is sensitive to even the smallest slight, was steaming by the time the game began.
"Who is Terry Furlow?" he said. "I've been in this league 11 years.He's not even a starter and he's running off at the mouth.He shouldn't call anyone names. I just wanted to show him he was wrong."
Hayes had plenty of motivation to play well down the stretch of the series even before Furlow opened his mouth.
In Game 2, when he scored 10 points, he was hurt by what he interpreted as unwarranted criticism in the press.He vowed to silence his critics "by showing them that anyone could have an off night."
By Sunday night, he had everyone singing his praises. Some thought it was his best-ever playoff showing, although he still points to last year's 28-point 18-rebound outburst in the series opener against Philadelphia as one of the finest games in his 11-year career.
"I wanted this game real bad," said Hayes, who returned yesterday to his home in Houston to rest for the conference finals starting Friday night. "Altanta helped motivate me by playing so hard. Anytime you wanted to let down, they kept coming and you couldn't.
"That makes you play hard too. You don't want anyone to say they outhustled you. I thought we were intense all series. They are just one heck of a team.
"Last year, they prepared us for the rest of the playoffs. This year, they've done the same thing. I can't believe anyone else can be tougher. We had to give it our best shot to beat them."
Lately, every time Hayes had a less-than-sentational playoff game, he's reminded of his previous stumbling efforts in early-career postseason contests.
But this is not the old Elvin Hayes, a man who frequently unraveled in pressure situations. Ever since Dandridge showed up two years ago to take some of the superstar burden off his shoulder. Hayes has been a different player.
"We know each other and what it takes to win," Dandridge said. "By now it is instinct. We don't go out there and say, 'you do this and I'll do that.' We just know what has to be done.
"Sometimes I think Elvin thought he had to do it all on his own. But now he doesn't have to. He can go all out in a game and when he gets tired, I can take over for a while. That allows both of us to produce at a high rate."
Dandridge has provided an example for Hayes to follow. No longer can Hayes let down in important games as long as his forward mate is performing at peak efficiency. His ego simply will not allow it. The result of this understanding was never more evident than in Sunday's game.
Dandridge who lacks Hayes' stamina, functions better when he paces himself. That is what he did in Game 7 while Hayes, breathing fire from the opening tap, carried the bulk of the scoring burden through the first 36 minutes.
Not that Dandridge was not helping out. The Bullets decided to overcome Atlanta's decision to front Hayes by having Dandridge get the ball at the top of the key and pass to Hayes as he broke to the basket, away from his defender. The two forwards combined for five field goals on that one play alone.
By the fourth period, Dandridge was ready to take control of the offense, something that Hayes understands and allows him to do. And while Dandridge was scoring 17 points, including 13 of Washington's last 15, Hayes was clogging up the middle on defense, blocking shots and coming down with a handful of key rebounds.
In past years, when Hayes tired down the stretch, there was no Dandridge present to support him. But now both are better because of each other's talents.
"We wouldn't be where we are without Bobby," Hayes said. "He helps me just being out there. Like in the fourth period, who could double-team me when he is scoring like that? They lay off one of us and the other one is going to get the ball. It's a tough combination to beat."
"When Elvin is aroused, there is no one-around who can stop him," Bickerstaff said. "He just has awesome physical ability. Did you see him out there? He was toying with mem. Anytime he wanted the ball, he got it. Imagine trying to play against someone that good."
There is no member of the Bullets who wants another championship more than Hayes, who feels he must prove that last year was no fluke, either for the team or for himself.
Long-time Hayes observers never have seen him so determined and so, well, downright mean as he was in the last five games against the Hawks.
"I just show my emotion, that's how I am," Hayes said. "Bobby is different. He keeps things to himself."
Motta long ago realized his two stars prepare themselves differently for the playoffs. He leaves Dandridge alone, letting him practice at his own pace. But he seraches for ways to give Hayes an extra mental edge over his opponents.
Last year, for example, Motta turned Philadelphia's George McGinnis, who was guarding Hayes, into the controversial figure of that series. Motta would drop suggestions to the press about McGinnis' weaknesses and the 76er forward took the bait by replying in anger about Hayes' playoff history.
Hayes responded by dominating McGinnis, who was traded away in the off season to Denver. To this day, the two still glare at each other in games.
Thanks to Furlow, Hayes had no trouble getting aroused for Atlanta, the team in the league he probably respects most. And thanks to the post season All-Star teams currently being announced. Hayes most likely won't have any problem motivating himself the rest of the playoffs.
Despite perhaps the best all-around season of his career, Hayes has trailed badly in two magazine polls for the league's most valuable player.
Bullet officials worried about how Hayes, who was not even chosen first-team All-Pro in the Sporting News' players poll, would react if he didn't dominate the MVP awards.
But he says he had prepared himself "not to worry if I didn't win. I wanted to and I don't know why I didn't. Who else did more for a team than me or Bobby D?"
"It's just something I can't change. I only can keep playing and win another title and show everyone who voted that they were wrong."
Perhaps even more stunning than Hayes being overlooked in the MVP balloting is the fact Dandridge, who had an equally outstanding season, has not been considered good enough to make second team in the polls.
Dandridge said he stopped playing for honors "a long time ago. If they come my way, fine. If they don't, fine. But my peers know who is good and who is bad. And so do I."
Motta can only smile and shake his head about the voting results. And then he points to his championship ring.
"All I know," he said, "is that I got this because of my forwards. And if I get another, it will be because of them. I think that says something about all those polls." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post; Picture 2, Bob Dandridge