A pair of Atlanta grinches stole Greg Ballard's Christmas present last night.

Ballard had a season-high 37 points, nine rebounds and passed for seven assists but Eddie Johnson and Dan Roundfield each scored 27 points to lead the Hawks past an otherwise listless Bullets team, 97-91, at Capital Centre.

The loss ended the Bullets' four-game home court winning streak. After a 26-26 first period standoff, the Bullets shot terribly and fell behind at the half, 40-28.

The Bullets made only two of 14 field goal shots in the period and never recovered from the debacle.

Not 100 seconds into the third period, Coach Gene Shue of the Bullets tried to redirect the team's sloppy Christmas pagaent with a quick timeout and a loud harangue. The rally, however, never came and the game slogged along to the finish.

"This is the first time I ever lost with the Bullets on Christmas," Shue said after the game. "It's pretty simple. We just weren't executing on offense and they were hitting on some pretty long shots and we just didn't."

The Bullets held Atlanta's high-scoring rookie, Dominque Wilkens, to seven points. Still, periodic comeback attempts in the second half faltered when the shots would not fall. Only Ballard and Jeff Ruland, who scored 18 points, kept pace with the Atlanta shooters.

Ballard, who spent the earlier part of Christmas Day with his wife and two children at their home in Oxen Hill, said he didn't get any presents all day.

"My haul? I got nothing," said Ballard. "The kids got it all."

Ballard's point total, one short of his career high seemed to be of little consolation. The performance in which he made 13 of 24 field goal attempts while the team shot only 40 percent from the field was not enough to stuff Ballard's stocking.

"It's nothing. It does us no good," Ballard said of his hot hand.

"It still counts as a loss."

For the first time in 17 games the Bullets opened with Spencer Haywood on the floor and Ruland on the bench. Haywood had not started since Nov. 14 when the Bullets played the 76ers at the Spectrum.

Haywood responed by scoring the team's opening basket and totaled nine points in 24 minutes of play.

"Spencer is better equipped to start than Jeff," Shue said. "Spencer likes to start off with a good flow. If he sits down at the beginning and then has to get his juices flowing when he comes off the bench, it's not as good. Starting doesn't matter as much to Jeff."

For Atlanta, forward Tom McMillen was reactiviated shortly before the game. He had been out of action with a strained right calf muscle since Nov. 30. McMillen scored eight points.

After the game Rick Mahorn (12 points) looked exasperated and exhausted. A ballboy dropped off two cans of soft drink at his locker, but Mahorn asked for more. "After this one I need a half a dozen," the weary Mahorn said.

By contrast, Coach Kevin Loughery of Atlanta looked as if he had just opened a long-delayed Christmas present. He and his team began the day with an early morning flight to Washington and had to wait 15 hours to look under the tree.

Loughery had an eight-inch stogie stuffed into his grin.

"I prefer to be off on Christmas, to tell you the truth, but at least it's a win for us," he said.

Loughery looked as if Santa Claus had come at last.