In basketball, when a player's mind drifts, every other part of his game follows. When he sees the hands that fly toward him -- or even senses they are somewhere nearby -- his shot has no chance. When he sees nothing but the rim, has it riveted in his mind, hands and bands and quicksand won't keep him from scoring.
"I've started to concentrate more," Greg Ballard was saying of the recent turnaround in his shooting form. "Also, I was leaning to one side or the other sometimes. Or falling away. Now, it's straight up, or leaning toward the basket a bit."
The Bullets also are going straight up, leaning ever closer to the playoffs, winners of their last four games and 10 of their last 12. They are suddenly successful, in part, because Ballard and Mitch Kupchak have become ravenous for points and rebounds. We have seen the Bulltes' future -- and it might not be as bad as it once seemed.
It long has been assumed that once either Wes Unseld or Elvin Hayes left, the Bullets would become Blanks, that those who remained would be fine, energetic players but nobody who could dominate a game, nobody who demanded so much attention that everyone around him would have an easier time.
During the Bullet streak, Unseld missed six games. Which seems to indicate they can play well against many teams without him. Unseld has played in the Bullets' last four games, starting the last two. Which means they still seem to play better with him.
Ballard has been the most accurate Bullet of late, with enough in-air corrections to make nearly six of 10 shots from the field and averagee 25.7 points in his last six games. And also average 10.5 rebounds. Kupchak, who earlier in the year had trouble on contested layups, has averaged 15 points and eight rebounds his last 10 games.
The Bullets are more flexible now, because they had to be with Unseld sidelined with ankle and knee injuries. Elvin Hayes moved to center, Ballard to power forward and whatever new player who happened to be on hand at the moment played small forward. And Kevin Porter all of a sudden began playing the way he did during much of his first tour of duty with the Bullets six years ago.
"A lot of teams have had trouble staying with us," Ballard said. "Our break and our delayed break have gone well. And we've had more balanced scoring, more involvement from everyone, more steals. We've dug in a bit more. Not that we ever were not playing hard."
For himself and for the team, Ballard has been pleased with the way Coach Gene Shue has acted during the bad and good times this season. Ballard was shockingly honest about Dick Motta after last season ("He never taught me a thing in three years."), so what he says about Shue is instructive:
"Even during our down period, he wasn't down on the team. He believed we could win. He kept calling us pros. When times were tough, when we'd be down by 20 at halftime, he talked to us like men instead of boys. He wouldn't just get on one player, he'd het on everyone. And he'd also say to hang in there, that he knew we could play better.
"Later, he kept saying that just because E or Wes couldn't play didn't mean we couldn't win.
"I liked that.
"With me, when I was in that slump, he never got on me. Nothing bad. He just said: 'Greg, I've seen you play much better. But even though your shot isn't falling right now you can do so many other things to help us. Like rebounds. And assists.'"
In his fourth season with the Bullets, Ballard still is a player without a permanent position. No one, including himself, is certain where he will be most effective. At 6-foot-7, he either is a big small-forward or a small big-forward. Lately, he has been very effective as the latter.
"If I'm rebounding well," he said, "I have an advantage as a big forward, because I can get open off screens and such. An if the big forward (somebody in the 6-9 to 6-11 range) comes out (to stop his jumper), I can fake and drive around him. Lots of big forwards don't want to come outside.
"Big forward was my position in college, but I started playing small forward here (behind Bobby Dandridge). Lately, I've been both at times." The career-long knock on Ballard has been that he does not rebound well enough to be overly effective at power forward and is not quick enough to be special at small forward.
Ballard prefers to turn that around. He is certain that under the proper circumstances he could be used in such a way that he wouldd overpower certain small forwards and outquick the larger ones.
He also is the Bullet player representative, which means that even when the team was off for the All-Star break this weekend he was not home. Ballard was in Cleveland for meetings, but did not plan on staying long enough to watch the game.
"Gotta spend as much time as possible with the family," he said, "and then get ready for that (seven games in 11 days) road trip. Our spirits are uplifted now. There's a whole different attitude."
But the same modest goal.
"We've always been thinking playoffs," he said. "Now that's very realistic."