One of the more positive offshoots of the Bullets' season, entering Wednesday night's game against the Utah Jazz, has been the development of the team's balance and depth through a series of injuries, absences and topsy-turvy play.
In Monday night's 101-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first of a four-game trip for Washington, center Jeff Ruland suffered through a dreadful two-for-15 shooting night. For Ruland, who scored 11 points, the game was typical of the past 10 days.
In that period, covering the Bullets' last five games, Ruland has averaged just 15.6 points a game, compared to his season average of 19.4. Last Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, Ruland scored just six points, going scoreless for the first three periods of the game. "Jeff is fine," Coach Gene Shue said after Monday's game. "Every player goes through stretches where things just don't go right."
Fortunately for Washington, Ruland's struggles have come at the same time that forward Greg Ballard has emerged from a spell of somewhat cloudy play. Averaging just 11 points a game, Ballard has increased his production to more than 18 per game over the last five contests, including a game-high 28 against Cleveland.
Next to Jeff Malone, Ballard is Washington's best outside shooter and is essential in helping to counteract the double- and triple-teaming Ruland receives on a nightly basis. By making the outside shot, as he's done at a 62 percent clip in this five-game span, the eight-year veteran becomes crucial to any team success.
That's why, even when things weren't going as well for Ballard, more often than not Shue would open games by running plays specifically designed for the forward in an effort to get him out of the gate quickly.
"That's the best time to get someone going," said Shue. "You want him to be loose and comfortable shooting the ball. With the way people play Jeff (Ruland), it's very important to hit outside shots to make things easier inside."
Such was the case at the end of the third period Monday. With the Bullets attempting to run an isolation for Ruland, the center beat a double-team by passing the ball to Frank Johnson, who rotated it to Ballard, wide open outside the three-point circle. Although that was not his customary spot, the shot whistled through the net, giving the Bullets a 74-71 lead after three quarters that they never relinquished. "Believe it or not, Dudley Bradley and I were shooting them before the game and I felt like the opportunity to make one was definitely there," said Ballard. "For some reason, other than Denver this is one of the easiest places to take longer shots."
Often lost this season in the commotion that has surrounded newcomers Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson, Ballard is hopeful there will be more opportunities to hoist similar shots.
"I've talked with Gene about trying to get into the flow of things earlier," he said. "I want to help make things happen. When you don't get off to a good start, there's a tendency to be forgotten about, which makes it tough to get back into things at any point later in the game."
Robinson, who injured his right leg Sunday against Philadelphia, dressed and attempted to warm up before the Cleveland game but, according to the assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, he wasn't able to get over the pain in his right knee and ankle. Before the flight here today, the forward limped noticeably through the Cleveland airport. Although scheduled to accompany the team for the remainder of the trip, the sight didn't lend any credibility to Shue's hopes that Robinson would be playing before the end of the week.
Like a gambler riding a hot hand, Shue continues to alter the makeup of his three-man rotation in the back court. Less than two weeks ago, Johnson was the odd man out. Now it appears to be Bradley, who has played just eight minutes in the last two games.
Johnson, who has played well recently, hit six of eight shots against Cleveland, had five rebounds and, along with Malone, played good defense on World B. Free in the second half of the game.