Bullets blast Rockets with 120-85 bang Webber, M. Price out, but B. Price, Muresan help rout champs; Olajuwon neutralized; Washington caps best first half since '86-87


LANDOVER -- Early in the day, Washington Bullets coach Jim Lynam found out there would be no Chris Webber. About 45 minutes before tip-off, he learned that Mark Price was a scratch as well. So the Bullets, limping toward the halfway point of the season, were about to face the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets with just nine healthy bodies.

"We were looking forward to having Chris," Lynam said. "I was concerned to the reaction of the team with Chris not being able to play."

If only Lynam could always get such a reaction from the Bullets. Behind a franchise-record-tying 12 three-pointers, the Bullets led from start to finish in a 120-85 victory over the Rockets before a stunned sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.

In recording their most lopsided win of the season, the Bullets ended the first half with a 20-21 record, the team's best first half since the 1986-87 season when it was 21-20. It's a tremendous improvement from a year ago, when the Bullets were 11-30 and didn't win their 20th game until April.

"All things considered, we're in the hunt," Lynam said. "Given the circumstances, I take my hat off to these guys."

The circumstances yesterday were that Webber, planning to play last night after missing the Charlotte loss on Wednesday, was still suffering soreness in his left shoulder. Mark Price was experiencing soreness on the side of his left foot, unrelated to the surgery that cost him most of the first half of the season. Both will have MRIs today.

They were hardly missed. Little brother Brent Price came close to a triple double, recording 25 points, a career-high nine rebounds and eight assists. Calbert Cheaney contributed 20 points, as Washington's starting backcourt outscored Houston's, 45-11 (Clyde Drexler had nine points in 33 minutes).

That was only part of the story. Hakeem Olajuwon, who has in his career made the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson look silly with his array of low post moves, was frustrated against the 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan.

When Olajuwon started his moves, Muresan, who doesn't jump anyway, simply backed off. When Olajuwon was ready to shoot, Muresan simply put his hand in his face. And when Olajuwon tried to attack the basket, most times he wound up bouncing off the firmly planted Muresan. Olajuwon scored 22 points in 31 minutes, but was barely a factor.

"He played very bad because he was tired," Muresan said of Olajuwon's playing his third game in four nights. "He can't do everything."

He needed to on a night where everyone else struggled. Olajuwon was the only starter in double figures for the Rockets, who trailed by as many as 39 points and shot 32.6 percent. The Rockets came close to their worst beating at the hands of the Bullets, a 156-114 defeat to the Baltimore Bullets in 1968.

The Rockets, losers of three of their past four going into last night, came away impressed.

"If they played like that every night, they would have one of the best records in the league," Olajuwon said. "They played like a championship team."

Whatever pre-game concerns Lynam had, Howard wanted to put them to rest. Howard (14 points, five assists) addressed the team after finding out that Webber and Price would not play.

"I brought everyone together and told them it doesn't matter what the numbers are, we've got to go out and play hard," Howard said. "That's when real men have to step up. And the real men stepped up."

Especially Price, who had 19 points at the half and hit six of 10 three-pointers for the game. He's been on a tear since his career-high 30 points against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 15, averaging 19.7 points and 6.6 assists. He had 10 points in the first quarter last night, when the Bullets took control.

RF "I was just out there trying to give our team a lift," Price said.

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