Greg Ballard was exhausted after Sunday's game. He had spent an afternoon guarding Boston's Larry Bird. If it had been the regular season, Ballard would have taken a big breath and looked forward to guarding someone easier next time out.

But these are the NBA playoffs, and Ballard will get Bird stuffed down his throat until either the Bullets or Celtics win four games.

Ballard did as fine a job on Bird Sunday as anyone has this season, limiting him to 10 points. But despite Ballard's defense, the Bullets lost the opener of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series in Boston, 109-91.

Bird said Ballard "did a good job of not letting me in the game, but we have a few things we can do differently Wednesday night."

Ballard's defense was one of the few things Coach Gene Shue was pleased with about Sunday's game and he is hoping Ballard's defensive mastery of Bird will continue tonight in the second game at Boston Garden (WDCA-TV-20 at 8:10).

Defense has been the backbone of the Bullets' success this season and, in the playoffs, it is even more important.

During the regular season, each team plays each of the other teams in its conference six times, an average of about once a month, so it is difficult to prepare a special defense for any player. But in a playoff series, the same teams play each other as many as seven times in succession, so special defenses are commonplace.

Ray Williams scored 52 points in the New Jersey Nets' last regular-season game, but against the Bullets, in a two-game sweep by Washington, he made only 14 of 42 shots and averaged 17 points. Don Collins forced Williams into the middle, where he was double-teamed, and when he went the other way, Collins overplayed him, which forced him farther from the basket.

Sunday, Ballard played a straight one-on-one against Bird, overplaying him, trying to deny him the ball. Once Bird did get the ball, Ballard gave him little room to try his jump shot.

By working that hard every time down the floor, Ballard limited Bird to only 10 shots, and he made three. But Ballard was so exhausted, he scored only 10 points himself.

"I was very tired," he said. "It takes a lot out of you to overplay a man like Bird the whole game, but that's the only way to defend against him."

Shue said he plans to use Charles Davis more tonight to give Ballard a rest.

In the opener, Robert Parish made six of 16 shots because the Bullets leaned on him and made him turn the way he didn't want to turn.

During the regular season, most coaches aren't that afraid of a single player. They'll let a George Gervin get his 35 points and concentrate on his teammates, but in the playoffs, the defensive strategy shifts to stopping the stars.

"Moses (Malone) killed us during the regular season, so we had to do something so that wouldn't happen in our miniseries," said Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens. "A star can carry his team in the playoffs."

What Wilkens came up with was a complicated, double-teaming defense that frustrated Malone and confused the Rockets. Malone averaged 31 points and 16 rebounds in five games against the Sonics during the regular season, but only 22 points and 13.5 rebounds in the two losses to Seattle in the playoffs.

"Everyone's defense tightens in the playoffs and the plays that work during the regular season just don't work like they used to," said Shue. "That's why you have to execute. You also have to be able to make little adjustments as a series progresses.

"In a playoff series, you should have a mental book on every player and know what he wants to do in every situation," Shue added. "In the first game, we did a good job on their key players, but we let guys who shouldn't have hurt us hurt us.

"It'll have to be a low-scoring game for us to win and the way you make it a low-scoring game is with defense. The Celtics are the best team in basketball right now and they're confident. We have to win a game to put some pressure on them. Who knows how they'll react if we beat them?"