Elvin Hayes went back to the box last night, that one-foot painted square on the left side of the foul lane that he has owned since 1968. He had his spot and his shot -- that familiar turnaround jumper -- back again and the Bullets beat the New York Knicks for the first time this season, 120-105, at Capital Centre.

Bullet guard Kevin Porter had 19 assists, tying him for the NBA high this season. Greg Ballard had 26 points, 19 in the first half, and Kevin Grevey had 20 for Washington.

"I've scored 20,000 points from there," said Hayes, who led both teams with 31 points and 13 rebounds. "There's no use in running away from it now."

But that's what he had been doing. Hayes, who had only 10 points and seven rebounds in Sunday's loss to Milwaukee, talked with Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullet assistant coach.

"I had been running outside and taking the outside shot," Hayes said. "He felt I should stay inside and take it to the defense and not go so far from the basket."

Hayes took Bickerstaff's advice. Said Porter: "Without a doubt, Elvin was the difference (between this game and Friday's 124-112 loss in New York)."

The Bullets are a half-game behind the Bulls, whom they play Friday in Chicago, in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Bullets led, 62-60, at the half and 92-83 at the end of the three quarters. They took the lead for good at 85-83 with 1:37 remaining in the third period.

In the last 2:03 of the fourth quarter, they outscored the Knicks, 14-3, to go up by 15, but the game was closer than the score would indicate.

In the first half, both teams shot over 60 percent. "The first half was outstanding," said Coach Gene Shue. "Everyone was shooting well. But it seemed like we couldn't stop the Knicks.

"In New York, in the first half, we played very well offensively, but you have to play defense regardless. There's always a tendency when you play a running game to forget defense.I knew we would play a better defensive game tonight."

In the second half, the Bullets held Michael Ray Richardson to two points and Michael Glenn, who had 21 Friday, to four. In the second half, the Knicks made only 18 of 51 shots, 35.3 percent.

In the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Bullets went up, 71-64, only to see the Knicks reel off nine straight points and lead by two with 7:02 left. The Bullets answered with nine straight points and tied the game at 79 on Don Collins' 13-foot baseline jumper.

With the score tied for the last time at 83, Richardson fouled Collins, who made both free throws. After the Knicks missed on their chance to tie, Ballard scored for the Bullets.

On the Bullets' next possession, Marvin Webster fouled Kupchak under the basket going for the rebound. He disagreed with the call vehemently and was called for a technical foul.

Ballard made the free throw for the technical and Kupchak the two foul shots, and that made the score 90-83. "That was the turning point," said Porter. "They couldn't come back."

But they tried. With 8:09 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Knicks pulled to within a basket, scoring six unanswered points, and bringing the score to 96-94.

But Collins, who finished with eight points, tipped in Porter's miss. Hayes blocked Bill Cartwright's shot and got down to the other end to put in a layup that put the Bullets up again by six.

Hayes played the final 5:25 with five fouls and scored six points, 12 for the quarter. Porter, who has been dreaming of a coach who would trust him to play with five fouls, got his wish with 3:12 remaining in the quarter.

"We played this game much smarter," said Hayes. "It was a real fine defense. The first half was scoring and scoring. The second half we clamped down and didn't let them get out and run the way they did in New York.

"Kevin (Porter), Greg (Ballard) and Grevey have been shooting tremendously well," he said. "When that happens, someone is going to suffer offensively. Everybody can't get the basketball. You have to go to the hot hand. I tried to play good and do other things. Usually, those other things go unnoticed in basketball."

Not last night.