LANDOVER -- The Washington Bullets were searching the Capital Centre for ghosts and goblins last night after their home record slipped to 2-9 with a 107-100 loss to the Houston Rockets.
How else to explain A. J. English, an 86-percent free-throw shooter, missing four in a row at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter? Paul Evans, a Baltimore high school algebra teacher who doubles as a Bullets statistician, said the odds of that happening were 2,400-1.
Buoyed by three straight road wins, the Bullets (9-18) had hoped to continue their momentum but were betrayed by poor foul shooting (17-for-28) and the timely outside shooting of the Rockets' Vernon Maxwell (24 points), whose three-point shot with a little less than two minutes left gave Houston a 101-97 cushion.
"The best thing for us is to go back on the road," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said in half-jest. "Maybe we're thinking too much or trying too hard at home. But as long as the effort is there, I can't complain."
Washington had many chances to win. It had survived a sizzling third quarter by the Rockets, who converted 11 of their first 12 shots to take an 80-67 lead. By the end of the quarter, the margin had been trimmed to seven.
And with an unusually raucous crowd of 14,617 cheering them on, the Bullets seemed in perfect position to take charge with 7:00 minutes left and trailing by only 88-87.
At this point, Maxwell nailed English in the head with a swinging elbow. Maxwell was called for a flagrant foul, giving English two RTC technical free throws and the Bullets possession of the ball.
But English, who had made 13 of 21 shots from the field to spark the Bullets' comeback, missed those two and another two 11 seconds later. The crowd groaned in disbelief.
"I must have just lost my head," said English, who had made 42 of 49 free throws before last night. "I can't ever remember missing four straight free throws, even in high school."
A little more than a minute later, English redeemed himself by feeding Tom Hammonds for a dunk and a 91-90 Bullets lead. But it was short-lived, as Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon (26 points, 12 rebounds) answered with a short jumper.
The Bullets then committed three costly turnovers, two by Pervis Ellison, and failed to make a field goal for the next three minutes.
Yet, they were still alive when English hit a baseline drive to close to 98-97 with 2:15 left. That set the stage for Maxwell's three-pointer.
"That's just Vernon," said Rockets coach Don Chaney. "He's one of those guys who shoots you in and out of ballgames.
"He has to learn when to put on the brakes when he's not hitting his threes. He's talented enough to score going to the basket. Fortunately, tonight, he made the three-pointers [4-for-7] when they really counted."
The Rockets (16-11), as usual, had excellent floor balance, with all five starters scoring 14 or more. When the Bullets concentrated on stopping Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe (17 points, 11 rebounds) down low, Maxwell and Kenny Smith hit open jumpers or small forward Buck Johnson sliced down the lane for layups and dunks.
"This team never ceases to amaze me," said Chaney. "We made a 360-degree turn in execution and enthusiasm tonight. When we lost in New Jersey Thursday night, we were sluggish, like our feet were planted in cement. Tonight, we were quick and energetic.
"We're still not playing well, but considering our injuries [to Olajuwon and Larry Smith], I've got to be encouraged that we're challenging for first place. That says a lot about our potential."
The Bullets, on the other hand, simply could not make a critical shot or pass. Floor leader Michael Adams hit only five of 22 shots, and starting forward Harvey Grant was 4-for-11.
English, with his season-high 26, and Larry Stewart and Ellison, with 20 points apiece, kept their team in contention.
"I got caught up in the air too many times, trying to decide whether to pass or shoot," said Adams.
Ellison had trouble handling the ball and several times passed up open shots as the 24-second clock was expiring.
"Both Pervis and Harvey looked tired out there," said Unseld. "In the fourth quarter, things just happened to us that I can't explain."
The Bullets can only hope that the Baltimore Arena will be more hospitable tonight when they entertain the Charlotte Hornets.