LANDOVER -- It appeared to be a tough way to end the first half of the season for the Washington Bullets, already approaching the midway point with a limp -- no Chris Webber, no Mark Price, and going against the two-time champion Houston Rockets.
So who could have expected Hakeem Olajuwon to be totally neutralized by Gheorghe Muresan? Or Clyde Drexler to look totally defenseless against a gimpy Calbert Cheaney? Or the Rockets to trail by as many as 39 points on the way to a 120-85 loss to the Bullets last night before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena?
In winning, the Bullets ended the first half of the season with a 20-21 record, the team's best first half since the 1986-87 season when Washington was 21-20 at the split. It's a tremendous improvement from a year ago when the Bullets were 11-30 at this point, and didn't win their 20th game until April.
The 35-point margin of victory tied the eighth largest in franchise history. With a lead of as many as 39 points, Washington came close to its largest victory over the Rockets, 156-114, which occurred on March 1, 1968.
"If they played like that every night, they'd have one of the best records in the league," Olajuwon said of the Bullets. "They played like a championship team. They worked together and shot the ball very well."
Mark Price, a late scratch after experiencing some recurring soreness in his foot, was hardly missed. Not with younger brother Brent Price getting 25 points, a career-high nine rebounds and eight assists.
Price hit six three-pointers. The Bullets had 12 three-pointers for the game, nine coming in the first half, which ended with Washington leading by 23 points, 71-48.
But the real story was the way Muresan, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds in 25 minutes, dominated the game. Olajuwon has made the likes of David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal and Patrick Ewing look absolutely silly with his wide array of low-post moves.
But Muresan, who doesn't jump much anyway, simply backed up and let Olajuwon go through his moves. When Olajuwon was ready to shoot, Muresan had a hand in his face that altered his shots. Olajuwon would score 22 points in 31 minutes, hitting 10 of 23 shots from the field.
"Gheorghe in the middle, he and [backup center Jim] McIlvaine set the tone," said Bullets coach Jim Lynam. "It fueled our fast break and turned it into one of those nights."
Olajuwon was the only Houston starter in double figures. Clyde Drexler scored nine points in 33 minutes, and Robert Horry six points (zero-for-4 from the field) in 29 minutes.
Instead of coming out flat without Webber and Mark Price, the Bullets instead opened the game by shooting 75 percent in the first quarter. The starting backcourt contributed 34 points in the first half (19 for Mark Price and 16 for Calbert Cheaney) and nine first-half three-pointers.
It was the highest scoring first half for the Bullets since last season, when Washington scored 77 against the Phoenix Suns.
Brent Price, who came off the bench behind Mark in Wednesday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets, once again displayed the form that saw him score a career-high 30 against the Chicago Bulls just over a week ago. Price hit six of nine shots in the first half, with five of six coming from beyond the three-point arc.
The Rockets, who snapped a three-game losing streak against the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday, struggled on offense in the early going, getting only three field goals. All three field goals came from Olajuwon, with the third one ending an 11-0 run by the Bullets.
With Cheaney and Price dominating from the outside, Howard (eight first-quarter points) and Muresan were having success on the inside. Howard's short jumper with 2:45 left gave Washington its biggest lead of the quarter, 32-14. Limiting the Rockets to 40.9 percent shooting from the field, and Clyde Drexler to just three points, the Bullets had a 37-24 lead going into the second quarter.
Sam Cassell gave the Rockets a lift at the start of the second quarter, scoring six points over the first three minutes. And back-to-back shots by Olajuwon -- the second coming with 7:36 left -- had the Rockets within 44-38.
From there one would have expected the defending NBA champions to be back in the game. But it wouldn't last long, as the Bullets ended the half with a 27-10 run over the final 7:11. During that span the Bullets connected on four three-pointers -- two by Tim Legler and one each by Brent Price and Cheaney. And with Mitchell Butler's steal from Olajuwon and drive down the court for a dunk just before the buzzer, the Bullets had a 71-48 halftime lead.
It was much of the same in the third, when Olajuwon and Drexler could manage just two points.