A guy who has his way against just about any player in the league, Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, was confused. The reigning Most Valuable Player's first foray into the lane Tuesday against Gheorghe Muresan, the Washington Bullets' 7-foot-7 center, was blocked, and suddenly the game's best low-post player was turned into a long-range jump-shooter.
"I couldn't do anything against him -- I just couldn't get into the flow offensively," said Olajuwon, who ended up hitting just eight of 20 shots in Tuesday's 93-85 win over the Bullets. "I saw lots of improvement from little Gheorghe from last year to this year. I don't really compare him to [former 7-4 Utah Jazz center] Mark Eaton, because he is very active."
Muresan played just 17 minutes against the Rockets, but what he did in that short period of time could provide a defensive lift to a Bullets team that's had a hard time stopping anyone lately.
Playing just his second game after spending nearly two weeks on the injured list with a lateral ligament sprain of his left knee, Muresan blocked three shots, changed many others and grabbed seven rebounds as he helped the Bullets mount a comeback that fell short.
When Muresan was in the game, the Rockets hit just six of 26 shots (23.0 percent). When he didn't play, Houston was lighting up the nets (25 of 41, 60.9 percent). Even Muresan knew that he was changing the flow of how the game was being played.
"He told me at halftime, I swear, that he didn't need a double team on Hakeem," said Bullets guard Rex Chapman, who missed his third straight game with an injured right groin muscle. said that he could play him by himself."
Muresan, sitting nearby, answered -- without an interpreter -- "He's joking, he's joking." He probably didn't want that comment to get back to Olajuwon.
But the fact that Muresan, who is a native of Romania, said he could defend Olajuwon solo (coach Jim Lynam even called off the double team on Olajuwon with shouts of "he's OK, he's OK" when Muresan was in the game) demonstrates the confidence the second-year player brings.
"I'm put in the game to change the score," Muresan said. "I want to be a good player and help out the team as much as possible."
When the Bullets traded for Chris Webber, and signed first- round pick Juwan Howard, Muresan appeared to be the odd man out. The backup center to Kevin Duckworth when the season started, Muresan immediately was regulated to third-string status behind Duckworth and Webber. He was injured when Webber and Howard joined the team, and was left wondering about his status.
But don't overlook the fact that, with Muresan, the Bullets were 4-2 and had allowed just two opponents to over 100 points. Since the first game he missed on Nov. 17 (the day of the Webber trade and Howard signing), eight teams have gone over the century mark against Washington.
Coincidence? Sure. With the trade, the Bullets are basically in training camp all over again as they adapt. But Muresan's play shows that he can interrupt the flow of a game.
"I thought Gheorghe did a decent job on the big fella," Lynam said. "I don't want to overstate it, but he's a presence in there. He bothered [Houston] a lot."
It was a positive effort, after an uneventful five minutes on Monday in San Antonio.
"I had difficulty catching the ball [against San Antonio]," Muresan said. "It was just difficult after standing weeks on the sidelines."
He has had to deal with the frustration of waiting for his knees to get stronger while trying different remedies, even trying a foul-smelling one that he had flown in from overseas.
"It's OK," Muresan said. "I feel something with certain movements, but it's not painful."
One person who is glad of Muresan's return to the lineup is Webber, who had been backing up Duckworth at center.
"He's a big help; it's hard for anybody to score on him," Webber said. "You see what he did to the best player in the league. It's hard to appreciate him until you get a game under your belt with him."
Now the Bullets see if they can translate some of that improvement into victories. The next two games are at home, against the Utah Jazz tonight and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. But the home court had not been helpful to the Bullets, who have lost four of their past five on their home court.
"If we go home and play like we did in the second half [Tuesday], we should get two wins," Webber said. "We're defending better, and hopefully we can take the positive from that loss and build on it."
The positive was Muresan, who may be building on increased minutes if he's able to perform as he did on Tuesday.
"When Muresan was in the game," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "It was like beating our heads against a brick wall."
A comparison of how the Washington Bullets' defense has fared with and without 7-7 center Gheorghe Muresan:
Points allowed .. Record
104 .. .. .. .. .. 4-4
Points allowed .. Record
107.5 .. .. .. .. 2-7
Opponent: Utah Jazz
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: HTS/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: Utah is 13-8 and in second place in the Midwest Division. This is the second game of a six-game road trip for the Jazz, the team's longest road trip of the season. F Karl Malone was sixth in the league in scoring (25.5 ppg) going into last night. G John Stockton is leading the league in assists (11.6 apg). The Bullets have lost three straight, and five of their past six. They play two straight games at home, before going on a four-game, five-day West Coast trip next week. Utah won both games against the Bullets last season.