After almost becoming the team's forgotten man earlier in the playoffs, reserve forward Greg Ballard looms as perhaps the pivotal player tonight when the Bullets try to carve out a place in the NBA record books by winning the Eastern Conference title.

Once down in games, 3-1, to San Antonio, the Bullets could become only the third NBA club to recover successfully from that deficit if they can capture the 8:35 p.m. contest at Captial Centre.

For the first time in the series Washington has San Antonio on the defensive, mainly because the Spurs have not found a way to handle the rampaging Ballard, who is fulfilling his pledge to make up for the loss of injured super sub Mitch Kupchak.

It was expected that George Gervin, Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge, Larry Eknon and James Silas would produce a large quantity of points, but not even Ballard figured he would become the series' most accurate shooter (71 percent) or the most effective player off the bench.

And now the Spurs have to wonder at what point Bullet Coach Dick Motta will decide to move Ballard to the small forward spot while switching Dandridge to guard.

That lineup with eight minutes left in Game 6 Wednesday night caught San Antonio off guard. The Spurs never adjusted and, instead of rallying from a five-point deficit, they easily were put away by the Bullets.

Motta has been reluctant to employ what he considers a gimmick lineup, but Ballard's steady excellence has forced him to find more playing time for the second-year forward. And since Dandridge is usually an invaluable player in the fourth period, the only solution was to play both at the same time.

The move was considered a concession that the high-scoring Gervin could be handled best under pressure by Dandridge. But, ironically, it also has created a major headache for Spur Coach Doug Moe.

On Wednesday night, Moe decided to keep Kenon on Dandridge out front, while putting former forward Gervin on Ballard. But while Gervin was playing his wandering, lazy defense, Ballard crashed the boards, muscled for offensive rebounds and scored nine points in the last 12 minutes.

"Sometimes, Gervin was looking away and trying to help out and then he would try to find me later," said Ballard, whose play around the boards resembles a mini-Wes Unseld. "By that time, I had established my position. He was a half-step behind and I took advantage of it."

Moe said that Gervin played too many minutes during the middle of the game-"that was my fault; blame me"-and was too tired in the fourth to muscle with Ballard, who outweighs the Ice Man by 30 pounds.

Now Moe has to decide whether to keep Kenon on Dandridge, thus having his best rebounder 20 feet from the basket, or to move Gervin to Dandridge and put Kenon on Ballard. But Dandridge relishes being covered by the slower Ice Man.

The Spurs also don't know when Motta will use, if at all, his new lineup. He doesn't want to show it too early, yet he also realizes that he can't let Gervin get untracked enough to take charge of the game at the end.

"You have to pick the time and the spot," said Motta. "It depends on the flow of the game and who is playing well and what the score is. We use it when we think it will do us the most good.

"Greg is just playing his rear off in this series. With Mitch out, we needed him to pick us up and he has. He's going after rebounds and now that his shots are falling in, he has all the confidence in the world."

Ballard is averaging only 18 minutes a game against the Spurs but he is scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds a game. His impact on the series was best summed up by Silas: "You expect to be hurt by Dandridge or Hayes. But look what Ballard is doing to us."

With Kupchak sidelined with a bad back and Charles Johnson reduced to a spectator's role in Game 6, Washington's once-deep bench essentially consists of two players: Ballard and Larry Wright, who was six of eight Wednesday.

But those two are giving the Bullets enough reserve punch to allow Motta to maneuver his regulars in and out of games. The result is a better flow by the club, which produced by far its best effort of the playoffs Wednesday.

Going into the playoffs, Ballard was fingered by Motta for an important backup role, much as he had played during an improved second pro season. But when Atlanta proved so tenacious, Motta stuck more and more with Dandridge, which reduced Ballard's contributions considerably.

That has changed now-"he could start for just about any team in the league," said Moe of Ballard-and so has the Bullets' temperament.

The pressure that has haunted them throughout the series has been lifted by the Wednesday's triumph. "This is where we wanted to be, considering how we started in the series," said Hayes. "I can't believe we will let down for the last game. It means too much."

But it also is very difficult to beat any NBA team, especially one as good as San Antonio, three straight times. Yet the Bullets feel their experience in pressure playoff games will carry them in this one. CAPTION: Picture 1 through 7, The playoff tide turns in favor of the Bullets as, clockwise from top left, James Silas charges Elvin Hayes; Bob Dandridge guards George Gervin (44); Hayes shoots; Greg Ballard watches ball; Wes Unseld and Coby Dietrick tangle, and coaches Dick Motta and Doug Moe shout advice.

by Richard Darcey-The Washington Post