Once again, the Washington Bullets found themselves the guests of honor at an NBA opening night celebration. Tonight, instead of playing passively as they had done the night before in Chicago, the Bullets -- a day older, a day wiser and infinitely more intense -- did a little celebrating of their own in a 104-102 victory over the Pacers.
Greg Ballard celebrated his return to the starting lineup by scoring 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field. Jeff Ruland was also 11 of 18 and added nine free throws for a game high 31 points.
Then there was Gus Williams. Another surprise starter, Williams was only six for 20 from the field, but was right on target when it counted, hitting a jumper from the right of the free throw line with three seconds remaining for the winning basket.
"I was definitely surprised when I heard I was starting tonight, but it was pleasant one," said Ballard, in his second second day with the team after preseason contract problems. "It was good being out there and back in the saddle again. I think it shows how much confidence (Coach) Gene Shue has in me, that I know the system and can do a good job."
As true as that may be, in one sense, Shue had no choice. The Bullets were devoid of an outside threat from the front line in their 109-93 opening night loss to the Bulls, one reason for their 40 percent shooting in the loss.
It was the spectre of similar numbers that prompted the switch, according to Shue. "Sooner or later it waas gonna happen, there was just no punch in the lineup last night," said Shue. "Darren (Daye) is a player that makes others look better, but we had to have that outside shot, so I just said to hell with it.
"Not being in camp may come back to haunt him later but tonight he was certainly great."
Tonight all of the Bullets started out of the gate quicker than they did the night before, mainly because of the presence of Williams, who pushed the ball upcourt whenever he could. The hectic pace was fine with Indiana, which is also trying to upgrade its offensive profile under first-year Coach George Irvine.
When the Bullets found themselves down by 27-24 at the end of the first period, they decided to go to a proven offensive source, Ruland. Scoring on just a pair of free throws in the first period, Ruland added 12 more points in the second, 10 on layups or free throws made after being fouled on shots.
The period also marked the debut of the Bullets' small but quick lineup, featuring Williams at guard with Frank Johnson. The experiment met with mixed results. The Bullets appeared more active offensively, but got into foul trouble by gambling excessively on defense.
The Pacers were also able to take control of the offensive boards, getting 10 offensive rebounds by halftime (for the game they would hold a 58-42 rebound edge, with 23 of them at their end). Fortunately for the Bullets, after Indiana got the boards it didn't know what to do with them.
By the fourth quarter the Pacers realized that it was far better to just put the ball in the basket after retrieving a missed shot, rather than taking their chances at the line, where they were only 26 of 39 for the game. After a jumper by Ruland put the Bullets ahead, 86-79, Pacers forward Herb Williams scored on three straight offensive rebounds to cut the Washington lead to one with 6:38 to play.
Shue called a timeout to try to break the Indiana momentum, but the Pacers scored seven of the next nine points anyway to go ahead by 92-88. The Pacers pushed the margin to 100-94 with 2:32 to play before Ruland and Williams combined for some last-minute heroics.
A layup by Ruland with 1:27 left cut the deficit to 100-99, then a three-point play sent Washington ahead 102-100. However, on the subsequent Indiana possession, Ruland picked up his sixth personal foul, fighting Steve Stipanovich for an -- what else? -- offensive rebound.
Stipanovich's two free throws with 22 seconds left tied the game at 102 and set the stage for Williams. Dribbling out the clock, Williams moved from the top of the key down to his left, hitting a fallaway jumper. "Just the way I drew it up in the huddle," joked Shue. "Gus didn't have a particularly good shooting night but when it's money time . . . "
"The play was designed for me to penetrate and then dish off if they tried to double team me," said Williams. "You just want to see how the defense plays you and get to an open area."
That, and making sure to avoid someone else's opening night.