LANDOVER -- Charles Barkley, obviously upset at being shut out of the H-O-R-S-E game being conducted by Michael Jordan and Larry Bird on McDonald's television commercials, found his own game last night.
The flamboyant Phoenix Suns forward looked like a guy visiting from an infinitely higher league as he hit an 18-foot jump shot just seconds after the opening tip against the Washington Bullets, then moved to long range.
Bang-bang-bang went Sir Charles from 24 feet and when he wasn't connecting on seven of his first eight shots for 17 points, he was setting up mates with seeing-eye bullet passes (five assists).
And that was just in the first quarter.
The thing is, Barkley was doing all this against Tom Gugliotta, the Bullets' frontliner who plays pretty good defense and enjoys a four-inch height advantage in the tale of the tape.
If Barkley was hot, teammate Cedric Ceballos was off the Celsius scale. Only difference is, he was the defensive responsibility of Don MacLean.
That, for the uninitiated, is roughly equivalent to cavorting around in an empty gymnasium.
About now, you're probably saying, so what was the score? We'll have that for you after these messages:
The Bullets shot a nifty 57 percent from the field and stacked up 58 points during the first half -- yet trailed by 23 points. That's right, the Suns had 81 points by intermission, most ever against the Bullets . . . and after scoring 89 in an entire game the night before in a loss to Charlotte. At the end it was Phoenix 142, Washington 106.
In the first period, Ceballos (19) and Barkley (17) matched the Washington total of 36 as the Suns pulled up at 44. Reminded by coach Paul Westphal that defense might not be a bad idea, Phoenix made the Bullets work for their 22 points in the second quarter while it continued, still virtually unopposed, to rack up 37.
It was Cotton Fitzsimmons, longtime NBA coach, current senior executive with the Suns and a commentator for Phoenix television, who put things in some sort of perspective during halftime: "If I was still coaching, I'd probably be throwing every available piece of furniture in the [Washington] locker room."
Ceballos hit the rest stop with 25 points and Barkley had 19. Sir Charles cooled it thereafter, playing just 10 minutes over the last three periods, and finishing with 24, while Ceballos stretched out to 36. Other Suns decided to fatten up at the expense of the "Great Sieve" off the Washington Beltway.
Dan Majerle, who just for kicks in the second period launched a three-pointer from about 35 feet that connected, scored 20 pointsm while Kevin Johnson and A.C. Green added 18 apiece. Johnson wasn't even wearing his own sneakers -- they were lost somewhere in transit -- or he might have gone for 30 or more.
Prior to the game, Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, noting how bad the Suns have been on the road lately, losing six of seven, commanded his troops, "Have fun out there and things will take care of themselves." The strategy worked brilliantly as Phoenix played with a freedom usually found in a Friday night pickup game at the local YMCA.
"When things are going bad in the league, it seems you can't buy a break," said the coach. That's when it's always comforting to check out the schedule and see you're scheduled into Washington.
Asked about Ceballos' big night, Westphal replied, "Cedric's like water. If there's a crack, he's going to keep on flowing through unless you seal up the crack."
See reference to MacLean's defensive ability above.
Despite having the opposition set a couple of scoring records while toying with his club, trailing by 43 points at one stage and grimacing as Phoenix posted 13 steals, Bullets coach Wes Unseld waxed philosophic: "We got out and competed. We were hurrying to get back on defense."
What if that hustle hadn't been the case?
"That's what scares me," said the coach.
The final score wasn't the worst of it. Just five minutes into the game, Bullet guard Michael Adams took a tumble in a scramble for the ball and separated his right shoulder.
It was a rough night all around. Washington (18-41) plays host to Denver tomorrow night.