There were the familiar stars tonight as the Bullets won the game they needed so desperately-and a new one, Greg Ballard, who always seems to rise during the sixth game of an important playoff series.
Ballard scored 12 points and grabbed 12 rebounds during a Game 6 victory against Seattle in the championship series last year. Last night was better. When the Spurs tried to hide George Gervin by having him guard Ballard late in the game, in fact dared him to shoot, Ballard jingled them.
"That's the history of playoffs," Bullet Coach Dick Motta said after Ballard's eight-for-11 performance from the field and 12 rebounds. "Some guy you don't expect to get hot gets hot. The fact that he took the big shots, didn't hesitate at all was so good to see. He never worried about his rhythm."
What worried Ballard was his stamina.
"For me that was the big thing," he said. "But I've been getting more and more minutes this series, so that gave me a lift during the long periods I was out there tonight (29 minutes in all). The Bullets' practices aren't all that intense, so, yes, it is hard to get into condition during playoff games."
Motta and others wondered why Spur Coach Doug Moe used Gervin on Ballard instead of a natural forward. Larry Kenon, when the Bullets switched Bobby Dandridge to guard early in the fourth quarter.
Moe later said Gervin was tired. Ballard said thanks.
"Sometimes he was gambling on defense," Ballard said, "and sometimes he just got lost under the boards. A couple of times (one on a tip Ballard put in to give the Bullets a 95-86 lead) he tried to go over me, but I had him blocked out. He was too late."
For the Bullets, one especially worrisome time was between the third and fourth periods. The Spurs had pulled even from an eight-point deficit and Wes Unseld had missed most of the quarter with five fouls.
Motta put him back in.
"With 12 minutes, it's up for grabs," he said. "But the whole season's wrapped up there, so I had to go with my best. But they didn't make him (Unseld) play defense. Nobody came at him. I took Bobby out and told him he'd either go in for Kevin (Grevey) with three minutes gone, or for Wes if he got the sixth one."
The strategy worked, in part because Elvin Hayes offered a heroic effort during one two-minute stretch that gave the Bullets their final lead.
At one end of the floor, Hayes blocked Gervin. A moment later he scored over Mike Green and converted the free throw for the three-point play that provided an 85-82 lead. The next time down the court Hayes stuffed Green on a follow-up shot.
"We'd lost a little momentum," Hayes said. "We lost an eight-point lead, Wes had been on the bench and at that point we had to generate something very quickly.We needed some big plays.
"I felt something had to happen, that each player had to make something happened, me, Gre, everyone. I just happened to be in position, I've always said the sixth game is the most important game of any playoff series."
For his night's work (25 points, 14 rebounds, six blocked shots), Hayes was showered with beer from the stands as he was entering the Bullets' locker room.
"First time in my life beer's ever touched my lips," he said, smiling. "That's just the fans love for their team and a little frustration that they had the advantage and let it get away from them.
"They (the Spurs) had been loose all year, but the last couple games they weren't loose. Friday night (Game 7) is a pressure game. Let's see what happens."
For one, Ballard is not ducking the pressure.
"He should be starting somewhere," Motta said. "But with Bobby and Elvin and Mitch there's a problem. He's a good person, and he's been rewarded (financially). He won't be able to stay on the bench more than one more year, though. "Greg's a minutes player. He wears you down. He's a starter."
"I try to make it a habit to hit the offensive boards," Ballard said. "Especially when I'm in there with E and Bobby, because I know they'll be shooting."
The Bullet guards were shooting-and finally scoring. Larry Wright was six for eight off the bench and Tom Henderson was five for 10, with eight assists.
"That opens it up for everyone else," Wright said. "Tom shot well, I shot well, Kevin shot well. They couldn't double up on us inside, not the way we shot tonight. Friday they're going to have to play us straight up.
"Or try to."