When the playoff pressure intensifies in the waning days of the season, coaches usually go with tested veterans. Instead, Gene Shue gambled with his youngsters tonight and it paid off with a 97-85 come-from-behind victory over Indiana.
Although the Bullets entered the fourth quarter nursing a shaky two-point lead, Shue opened with three rookies and two second-year players and went with the inexperienced quintet the rest of the game.
They all responded as the Bullets matched their victory total of the last two seasons by raising their record to 39-37. The Bullets moved into a fourth-place tie with New Jersey, a 116-113 loser to Philadelphia, and also gained a full game on Atlanta, which lost, 120-115, at Detroit.
Three rookies provided the impetus for this fifth victory in six games with Indiana.
Frank Johnson, playing 44 minutes in the absence of John Lucas, who said he had stomach flu, led the way with 21 points. Jeff Ruland had 13 points and 12 rebounds and Charles Davis scored eight of his 10 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
"We got good performances out of some people who usually don't get a chance to contribute and that's remarkable in a game this important," Shue said. "When they closed to within six (89-83) with about three minutes to play, I thought about going back to the veterans, but I decided to stay with the kids because they were playing so well."
In addition to the three rookies, Shue used Don Collins and Rick Mahorn to hold off the Pacers; Mahorn was particularly effective. The muscular center wound up with 17 rebounds and eight points.
"That was vintage Mahorn," Shue said. "He really did a job on the boards and that's what he's got to do for us. When we're not hitting our shots, we have to win with defense."
Despite winning their last two games, the Bullets still haven't snapped out of their offensive doldrums. They made only 46 percent of their shots in Tuesday night's 94-85 victory over Cleveland and connected on just 43 percent (36 for 83) against the Pacers.
Greg Ballard and Kevin Grevey each made five of 13 shots and Spencer Haywood missed 12 of his 15 attempts.
"I told the players not to worry if their shots aren't going down, just to play harder on the defensive end and that's what they've done the last two nights."
Following four ties and three lead changes in the first quarter, Indiana moved out to a 28-20 lead early in the second period. The Bullets made only seven of 18 shots in the second quarter and fell behind, 45-35, before scoring eight of the final nine points to close within three by halftime.
"We didn't shoot well in the first half, but our defense kept us in it," said Ruland. "Coach went with some fresh guys late in the game and they produced."
Indiana still was in command, 63-55, midway through the third quarter before Grevey scored six points to spark a late surge that put them in front, 72-70, going into the final period.
Then the youngsters took over.
"We're quicker and better in the transition game," Johnson said. "Don and Charlie really get out on the break. Rick and Jeff were doing a great job on the boards and that made it easier to run."
Johnson said he got himself mentally prepared to play a full game when Lucas missed the early morning flight here. He talked with Lucas during the day and knew he would have to run the offense alone.
"There was nobody backing me up tonight," the first-round draft choice from Wake Forest said. "I felt more comfortable because I knew even if I made a mistake, I wasn't going to come out."
Johnson made only six of 14 shots, but converted nine of 10 free throws and added a game-high five assists.