It was perhaps fitting that Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets departed the Summit in Houston quickly after the Washington Bullets' 123-115 victory Saturday night.
Neither was in a position to do much talking anyway, on or off the court. Sampson, bothered recently by flu, had 12 rebounds but only 14 points in the game, about 20 fewer than he had averaged the last two weeks. Olajuwon had 29 points but wasn't truly a factor after the first five minutes of the game.
Much of the credit for the subpar play of both players belongs to Washington's Rick Mahorn, Tom McMillen, Cliff Robinson and Charles Jones. Jones, whose play also was crucial in Wednesday's victory at San Antonio, scored six points and blocked one of Sampson's shots during a stretch of the second quarter when the Bullets took control.
Robinson led Washington with 11 rebounds and provided effective relief of McMillen early in the game after Olajuwon's fast start.
Then there were Mahorn and McMillen. Although he had nine rebounds, Mahorn scored but seven points. McMillen didn't have a single rebound to go with his 10 points. Yet both could be credited for the job they did on the Rockets' big men, both of whom made this season's All-Star Game.
Entering the game, there was little reason to think the Bullets would be able to do much against Sampson and Olajuwon, given the Bullets' less-than-sterling success against the less-than-dynamic Golden State duo of Mickey Johnson and Jerome Whitehead.
That seemed to be confirmed when Olajuwon scored six points in less than two minutes, prompting Shue to pull McMillen. "We thought Tom was going to be able to play Olajuwon well, but I wasn't going to wait to find out if it was going to happen," Shue said. "Akeem was just outquicking him."
When he did return, McMillen turned to the thing he does best: play the crafty veteran. With a combination of leaning, pushing and some subtle elbowing, McMillen made the rookie from the University of Houston more concerned about McMillen's location than the basketball.
"In fairness, there was some fouling going on both ways," McMillen said. "Things I usually get called my way weren't getting called at all. What I wanted to do more than anything else was just keep him off the boards. I wasn't even trying to get a rebound myself; I had to try so hard to keep him away."
Even in his weakened state, Sampson is a force on the basketball court. In going against him, what Mahorn hoped to accomplish basically was "forcing him to go to his left and make him take the jumper instead of him dunking the ball in over my head."
To accomplish that, the 6-foot-10, 260-pound Mahorn used a strategy of applying lots of body to the opponent.
Late in the second quarter, the 7-4, 220-pound Sampson was hit in the face and sat out the remainder of the first half and the first eight minutes of the third quarter. No one was certain whether it was flu or Mahorn's fist that was responsible.
Not that Mahorn cared a great deal. "Sometimes a guy will play better if you make him mad, but what you have to do is try and frustrate a player," he said. "If you can do that, then you've got him."
Two of the Bullets ended scoring slumps at the most opportune time. Despite Mahorn's and McMillen's handiwork, there still were limited scoring opportunities on the inside, which made Gus Williams' 30 points and Jeff Malone's 28 just as crucial to Washington's success.
Each had played below par most of the trip. Williams' low point was a five-for-21 night in Seattle; Malone shot nine for 28 against Golden State. On Saturday night they totaled 23 for 37.
"Knowing how strong they are inside, I thought it was important for us to have a good shooting night outside," Malone said. "I knew I hadn't shot well on the trip. I got numbers (against the Warriors, he finished with 25 points despite many misses) but I think I should be a 50 percent shooter, at least. I don't want to have to take a lot of shots just to reach a number."