Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard, the Bullets' perennial budding stars, finally seem ripe to blossom after years of sitting and sometimes withering on the Washington bench.
In a 118-100 romp over the wretched New Jersey Nets today, the pair again demonstrated their potential. Kupchak scored a career-high 30 points, 16 in the final quarter, and had 11 rebounds; Ballard, shooting uncannily from the outside, scored 25 points.
The Bullets, more unpredictable this season than a Metro rail schedule, won their seventh game in their last eight, prompting Kupchak to say, "I have visions of making the playoffs."
Bullet forward Elvin Hayes missed his first game this season, sitting out with a hip pointer, but Coach Gene Shue said the veteran should be available Tuesday in Atlanta.
Kupchak, with a 27-point, 17-rebound game against the Nets a week ago, had averaged 16.5 points and 9.4 rebounds over the last eight games in a part-time role and Shue hinted that he may again reevaluate Kupchak's status.
"He has been getting more and more time and he's been very effective as a bench player," said Shue. "He's responding so well for us. Maybe we'll have to take another look at his role."
Ballard and playmaker Kevin Porter also have been superb during the Bullet surge. In Rutgers Athletic Center today, Porter had 20 points and 17 assists, making his eighth straight game with 10 or more assists. Ballard has averaged 21.4 points on 56 percent shooting over the last eight games.
"I had a slump earlier but I've found a hot hand," Ballard said. "K.P. is looking for me a little more. Everyone is. I was getting 10 or 12 shots a game, now I'm getting 18 to 23. I guess when you're shooting pretty fine, you're shoot more."
"You're shooting mighty fine," teased Austin Carr. "I mean mighty fine."
Wes Unseld, playing his second straight game after missing several with tendinitis in his right knee, performed his well-honed role of Washington pillar and muscle man, getting 10 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes.
For three quarters, the Bullets could not shake New Jersey, loser of 17 of its last 19. The teams stayed deadlocked despite the poor play of Net standout Maurice Lucas, who hit three of 13 shots. But from midway through the final period when the Bullets led, 89-88, Kupchak, Ballard and Porter ran the Nets out of the game.
In a 97-second span, the Bullets scored nine straight points: Kupchak made a driving stuff, Ballard an outside jumper, Kevin Grevey a fast-break stuff, and, off a steal by Ballard, Porter drove for a basket and accompanying foul.
"We had a superb fourth quarter," Shue said. "I never felt good about this game at any time. Kupchak carried us in the fourth quarter and we ran some plays designed for Ballard."
New Jersey's Mike Newlin, putting his first four bombs of the last period on target, momentarily gave the victory-starved Net fans hope, but he cooled off.
"Newlin got hot a little too late," Kupchak said. "I played one of my better games today. Lucas didn't play one of his better games. I don't know if that was the difference."
The difference, in part, was that the Nets played horribly much of the time. They made 21 turnovers. From the outset, the game was short on artistry -- the teams committed four turnovers in a 15-second span in the opening moments.
The Nets, playing in a small and half-empty college gym, often performed like a small and half-talented college team. Other times, the Nets seemed energetic, if youthful. Rookies Mike Gminski (15 points) and Mike O'Koren labored hard with few rewards.
The Nets today became the first NBA team this season to drop out of contention for a division title, falling 30 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers with 29 games remaining.