After playing consecutive games against the NBA elite, the Washington Bullets found some competition more to their liking tonight, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers, 101-91.

Greg Ballard got the Bullets (21-17) out of the starting gate early and closed the door late in the game on his way to a game-high 28 points. World B. Free led the Cavaliers with 21 points and made four three-point field goals.

The Bullets won without forward Cliff Robinson was not in uniform tonight after injuring his right leg Sunday against Philadelphia. He accompanied the Bullets here, but his status was listed as day-to-day.

A shot by Ballard was perhaps the biggest in the game. As they did in the first quarter, the Bullets had blown a lead, this time in the third period, the Cavaliers coming back from five down to take a 71-69 lead on Roy Hinson's stuff with 1:56 to play in the quarter.

But after Jeff Malone (21 points) evened the score with an offensive rebound basket, Ballard made a three-point shot from near the top of the circle with 13 seconds remaining, giving Washington a lead it never relinquished.

Afterward there was a bit of disagreement on the shot. "We were running a four-down play (an isolation for Jeff Ruland), but I'm sure he thought time was running out," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "It turned out to be a really big shot in the game."

"He said it wasn't designed (as a three-pointer) but I made it designed," retorted Ballard. "It was definitely an intentional attempt. There was no other thought in my mind."

Ballard's shooting saved the Bullets from being the latest victim of the Cavaliers, who entered the game winners of four of the last five games and eight of the previous 13. The team's last victory was an emotional one, 101-98, over Chicago before more than 18,000.

Monday's game was played before an intimate gathering of less than 1,000. The team announced that 3,462 tickets were "distributed," but so few fans showed up that the team guaranteed free tickets for another game to the hearty soles who braved a snowstorm to come out to the Coliseum.

Perhaps it was the thought of another victory that brought the people out. Cleveland had won the last five games played here, the Bullets last victory coming in April 1982, a statistic that wasn't lost on Ruland.

"Maybe the snowstorm will bury this place and force them to close it," he said. "I don't know if it's the long bus ride (the building seems to be an hour from any hotel), or what, but we just don't play well here."

Ruland was speaking from experience. Tonight, the center had 13 rebounds but shot two of 15 from the field and seven of 11 from the foul line. Much of that might have been the result of Cleveland's clutching defense, one that left him with a series of deep scratches along the left side of his chest.

Ballard's start was even more crucial to the Bullets, given Ruland's plight. After Rick Mahorn made a basket, Ballard scored the next four field goals to give Washington a 10-0 lead.

But the Cavaliers came back, mainly behind the shooting of Free. Entering the game at the 8:13 mark of the quarter, the guard scored nine points and the period ended 25-all.

Free would score another seven points in the second quarter, the half ending with Cleveland ahead, 54-51. From then on, though, he scored only five.

"There are a pair of players fighting over that one," said Shue. "After the game, Malone mentioned that World had only scored the five points and took credit for it, but when we got into the locker room, the first thing Frank Johnson said was 'How about that defensive job I did on World?' "

Cleveland Coach George Karl considered the entire affair "tired." He said, "The crowd was small, the pace was slow . . . I think Washington enjoyed it all."

Shue, however, was more pleased with the game, no matter how it looked.

"It was nice to see, after the tough games we've had, to see the team come back and play hard in the second half," he said.

Ruland agreed: "They've been playing well and winning. We've been playing well and losing. It's good not to play well and win anyway."