The inspirational play of Bernard King and the coming of age of Harvey Grant are the most obvious reasons for the recent winning surge that has put the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
But, in compiling a 4-2 record during the past two weeks, the Bullets have received a more subtle contribution from Pervis Ellison, the reserve center-forward who needed almost two months to overcome nagging foot injuries and, at the same time, feel comfortable with a new system.
Ellison, acquired from the Sacramento Kings last June in a three-team deal that sent Bullets scoring leader Jeff Malone to the Utah Jazz, finally has begun to display the skills that made him the first player selected in the 1988 National Basketball Association draft after his celebrated college career at Louisville.
During the past five games, Ellison, 6 feet 10, has been a defensive force, averaging 10.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks and giving the Bullets an intimidator.
"This is what we wanted from Pervis," said coach Wes Unseld, preparing his team for tonight's Capital Centre game against the Charlotte Hornets.
"If he rebounds, blocks shots and makes good outlet passes to set up easy baskets, then he's doing his job. At this point, I'm not worried about his scoring [5.8 ppg]. If he scores, that's a plus. But I don't want to put him in a situation where he has to do everything."
For some time, there were questions whether Ellison could do anything well. But the Bullets coaching staff has been patient with him.
"You've really got to assess Pervis as a rookie this year," said assistant coach Bill Blair. "He only got to play 34 games with Sacramento last season. He is really first learning the pro game, the nuances of man-to-man defense and getting used to playing three or four times a week, instead of a couple times like he did in college.
"We know Pervis has the basketball skills. He has shown this in spurts as a pro. Now, he has to learn to maintain it over a period of time."
Although he has played only 18.8 minutes a game, serving as a backup for center Charles Jones, a defensive specialist, Ellison says he has had no quarrel with the way he's been handled.
"With Wes, he plays you based on your performance," he said. "He doesn't play favorites. I'm getting more minutes now because my game has improved. It's that simple.
"In college, I was always in the game. It's been a big adjustment bouncing off the bench, playing for five- to 10-minute stretches.
Ellison's early difficulties, as he seemed always out of sync and in foul trouble, were as much physical as mental.
"I don't like making excuses, but I was playing on a sore ankle for the first month of the season. I experienced pain every time I landed the wrong way," he said. "Now, it's just starting to come around."
Unseld, who strongly supported the trading of Malone for Ellison, hardly has made his fellow Louisville alumnus a teacher's pet. Quite the contrary: In practices and games, the coach can be heard exhorting Ellison to push himself harder.
"It only helps me," Ellison said. "From Day One when I joined the team, Unseld pulled me aside and said: 'I'll be getting on your neck, pushing you all the time to do better. Don't take it personally.' All the coach's criticism has been constructive. Wes has never said anything derogatory to me. It's not like someone suddenly screaming at you one day, 'Do this or that!' He is always instructing me, helping me to concentrate and be more consistent."
If Ellison continues to improve and John Williams, the Bullets' most versatile frontcourt player, rejoins the team as expected in late January, Unseld will find himself with a formidable cast of big men, including King and Grant.
It's a pleasant problem for the coach to ponder, one preferable to all the questions and uncertainties of the first two months of the season.