LANDOVER -- These days it's getting kind of difficult to figure out which is the real Washington Bullets team. Is it the one that goes out and gets blasted by mediocre teams? Or is it the club that goes toe-to-toe with the NBA's best?
Going against the Houston Rockets last night, the Bullets -- at least on paper -- appeared to be no match for the top team in the Western Conference. But Washington managed to go toe-to-toe with the Rockets, only to fall short in the end, 103-99, before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at USAir Arena.
It was the second straight loss for the Bullets (7-8), coming one night after getting blasted in a 29-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks. In winning their ninth straight game, the Rockets (15-1) managed to tie their best start in franchise history and remained unbeaten on the road.
"When you win, it kind of snowballs and you have confidence," said forward Charles Barkley, who had a solid all-around game -- 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists. "We knew they would come in here pumped up, because they got hammered last night."
The Bullets were pumped up, getting a solid performance from their front line of Chris Webber (24 points -- 11 of 12 shooting from the field), Juwan Howard (17 points, nine rebounds) and Gheorghe Muresan (16 points, nine rebounds). But it was the veteran leaders of the Rockets who came through in the clutch.
Playing most of the fourth quarter without Clyde Drexler, who picked up his second technical with 9: 33 left, the Rockets got clutch contributions down the stretch from Hakeem Olajuwon (34 points, 17 rebounds) and Barkley -- each of whom scored 10 fourth-quarter points.
Seven of Olajuwon's points came in the final 3: 37. But it was two plays by Barkley in the final 30 seconds that would prove to be the difference in the game.
First he batted the ball away from Webber and saved it on the end line, calling timeout before going out of bounds. With eight seconds left and a one-point lead, Barkley attempted to shoot over Howard on the left baseline. Even though there appeared to be little contact, Barkley went sprawling -- and Howard was whistled for the foul. Barkley hit the two free throws for a 102-99 Houston lead.
The Bullets called time, and had one last chance to tie. But Tracy Murray, after a pump fake, had an open look on a three-point attempt that would have tied the game. But he missed badly, and the Rockets were able to escape.
"I just have to respect what the referee called -- it can't be corrected," Howard said. "Charles has a way of getting calls like that, he's been in situations like that a lot of times. It was a questionable call. But he's a veteran, and I'm a young boy."
And, while disappointed in the loss, the Bullets walked away with a great deal of respect for a Houston team that -- playing with point guards named Matt Maloney and Randy Livingstone -- has matched the Chicago Bulls with the best record in basketball. It doesn't hurt that the Rockets boast three players who are listed among the top 50 of all-time -- Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler.
"It was just their veteran leadership. Seeing some of the things Barkley and Olajuwon did late in the game, being veterans and having gone through that helps," Webber said. "They were cool, calm and collected -- that's what did it for them. They've been in situations like that triple the amount of times we have."
Not that the Rockets weren't challenged. Houston actually trailed by as many as seven points early in the fourth quarter, 89-82.
And Muresan, for a stretch, was more than holding his own against Olajuwon, hitting seven of 12 shots in clearly his best game of the year.
But in the end Olajuwon showed why his footwork is unmatched among NBA centers, easily spinning around Muresan.
"He creates a lot of problems," Olajuwon said of the 7-foot-7 Bullets center. "So you have to find a way to create problems for him."
Giving the fact that the Bullets have gone down to the wire against two of the league's top teams -- Houston and Seattle -- you have to wonder when Washington will play the same way against some of the non-elite teams.
"We've got to learn to be consistent," Howard said. "We just can't get up for Houston, and not get up for teams like Atlanta."
NOTES: Rod Strickland had a season-high 11 assists, but missed 11 of 16 shots. The Bullets are off until Thursday.
Pub Date: 12/01/96