With Frank Johnson now starting in place of John Lucas, the Bullets need another substitute who can provide an offensive spark. Don Collins showed tonight he may be Washington's man.
Alternating between guard and forward, Collins made seven of 14 shots and scored 17 points to help the Bullets hold off Cleveland, 109-100, before 4,298 at Cleveland Coliseum.
The 6-foot-5 swing man from Washington State also contributed five rebounds and three steals as the Bullets won their seventh road game in their last 11 tries.
"Don really made some big plays down the stretch," said Coach Gene Shue. "He's got good quickness and is very effective in the open court."
After Cleveland cut the Bullets' lead to 94-90 with 5 1/2 minutes to play, Collins scored five straight points to give his team the cushion it needed to beat the Cavaliers for the third straight time this season.
Collins made a free throw, then drove the length of the court for a layup, then scored again seconds later after intercepting a pass and working a nifty two-on-one with Lucas.
Lucas returned to the Bullets tonight after missing Wednesday night's loss in Philadelphia, but lost his starting job and played 14 scoreless minutes.
"I didn't get frustrated tonight," Collins said after one of his best performances in an erratic season. "I kept a cool head and stayed within the offense."
Another reason the Bullets were able to halt their two-game losing skid was because they excuted their plays and got the ball inside in the critical closing minutes.
Greg Ballard, the team's steadiest player, again led the scoring, with 27 points on 13 of 27 shots. He had eight points in the fourth quarter and Jeff Ruland six.
"Frank did an excellent job of running our plays at the end," Shue said. "I'm not worried about his scoring (two of seven shots for five points). His job is to get the ball inside and that's what he did."
The Bullets steadily increased their two-point halftime lead to a 13-point advantage, 81-68, with 2:42 left in the third quarter, but there still were several anxious moments left for Shue.
With Ron Brewer, recently acquired from San Antonio in a four-player deal, leading the way, Cleveland made a strong comeback. Brewer, who tied Ballard for scoring honors, had six straight points to make it 95-92 with five minutes remaining.
After Collins' spurt, the Cavaliers came back again, reducing their deficit to 101-98, but the Bullets kept their poise. They scored the next six points, on two free throws by Ruland (23 points), a lay-in by Ballard and a reverse layup by Collins after a pass from Ballard, to seal the victory.
Both teams started off shooting well and neither could gain more than a two-point edge. There were eight ties, the last at 16. Ballard led the early charge with three base line jumpers.
Kenny Carr, who played at De Matha High, scored six straight points, on a layup after a steal, then two straight jumpers, to give Cleveland a 22-19 lead.
Kevin Grevey, shooting well again after a long slump, made a three-pointer, then a free throw to keep the Bullets close. Ruland replaced a scoreless Rick Mahorn and made two free throws after the buzzer to cut Cleveland's lead to 29-26 at the break.
Collins, replacing Ballard at forward, scored the first four points of the second period to put the Bullets back in front. After a jumper by Grevey, Collins got another driving layup.
Lucas made his first appearance with 8:33 left in the half and set up Collins, who made four of his first five shots. After the Cavaliers pulled even, Ballard's three-point play gave his team a 41-38 edge.
The Bullets, playing their third game in three nights in three cities, had a rebounding lapse that allowed Cleveland to score twice on offensive taps.
There were five more ties before Ruland, on a power move, gave the Bullets a 55-53 edge at intermission.