Some people were not at all surprised by Greg Ballard's performance in the Washington Bullets' 104-102 victory over the Indiana Pacers Saturday night.
Ballard, who only signed a new contract with the team two days earlier and joined them five hours before their opening night game in Chicago Friday, started at small forward and played 32 minutes against the Pacers, scoring 25 points and getting 10 rebounds.
"So what if he joined the team Friday," said one member of the Indiana front office. "He would do that against us if he had been in a wheelchair all summer."
Ballard led the Bullets in scoring three out of the five times they played the Pacers a year ago, averaging more than 22 points a game in those contests. So perhaps it was just a case of memory winning out over common sense.
"Not being in camp may come back to haunt him," said Coach Gene Shue, "but for tonight, he was just great."
Ballard got word of his starting assignment at the team's shoot-around Saturday afternoon, the same time that Shue told Gus Williams he would be in the lineup at guard in place of Frank Johnson. Both moves were designed to get the offense off to a better start than the previous night in Chicago, when the team shot 40 percent from the field and let the game get out of hand early.
Williams responded immediately to the change, scoring six quick points. It took Ballard a little longer to get started. At 6:52 of the first period he scored his first basket of the year, but he scored the next two Washington field goals before leaving the lineup for a rest.
"I wasn't really worrying about getting up and down the court, " Ballard said. "It (his lack of conditioning) didn't really bother me until there were about four minutes left in the quarter so I asked Gene to take me out then."
The game wasn't an easy one for Ballard to take his first dip in the pool. Under first-year coach George Irvine, Indiana is trying to become a fast-breaking team, as are the Bullets with Williams. The result was often an almost frantic pace, with one team rushing out to a lead only to have the other come roaring back after a streak of its own, a major difference from the previous night when the Bullets didn't respond to a number of Chicago point runs.
"It was sort of funny, Indiana was more intent on running the ball than the Bulls and probably did it better, but we didn't have nearly as much trouble with it tonight," said Williams. "We did a much better job getting back on their transition game."
Besides the game-winning jump shot by Williams and the three-point play by Jeff Ruland (one of three he had in the game) that preceeded it by 34 seconds, the most important series of plays for the Bullets came in a hectic 29-second span early in the fourth period.
A late Indiana run had tied the game at 76 entering the quarter. With the momentum decidedly in Indiana's favor, Rick Mahorn hit a short jumper. Williams made a steal near midcourt but lost the ball to Indiana rookie Vern Fleming.
Moving in on a two-on-one break, the former Olympic gold medalist tried to lay the ball in off the backboard, but the shot was blocked by Mahorn, one of his five blocks for the night. Five seconds later, Dudley Bradley scored on a layup and the tide had been temporarily stemmed.
"I thought it was just an exceptional game in terms of intensity and the quality of play," said Shue. "In the last 5 1/2 minutes we were scoring on every possession, and so were they."