The Washington Bullets' chances of winning the NBA's Central Division championship may be determined tonight when they have that long-awaited showdown with the Houston Rockets at Capital Centre.

The Rockets lead the second-place Bullets by one game in the loss column and by 1 1/2 games overall.More than 14,000 tickets have been sold for the 8 p.m. game.

Bullets coach Dick Motta, who chalked up his 400th professional career coaching victory Wednesday night, said, "It's a damn important game. If we lose, Houston will have the upper hand, but the race won't be over. It isn't sudden-death yet."

Maybe not, but it's close to it.

After tonight's match, the Bullets will have five games remaining, three of them at Capital Centre. The Rockets will have four left, two at home.

"When we lost to Seattle at home (March 16) and to the Knicks at hom (Sunday), we had to get some help from someone to stay within striking distance and we got it. Now we can do something for ourselves," Motta said.

The help the Bullets received was from Detroit, Golden State and Seattle, who handed the Rockets three straight road losses.

The Rockets have beaten the Bullets wo out of three this season, but the clubs haven't played since Jan. 1 when the Bullets won, 104-89, at Capital Centre.

"It's been so long since we played them I don't know what we'll have to do to beat them," Motta said.

"They're an awfully big team and that will cause us some problems defensively, and then Moses (Malone) is going crazy on the boards."

The Rockets are big. Up front. They start the 6-foot-10 Malone and 6-8 Rudy Tomjanovich at forwards and seven-foot Kevin Kunnert at center. The guards are former Maryland all-America John Lucas and Calvin Murphy.

Malone already has set a National Basketball Association record for offensive rebounds this season. In an effort to keep him off the boards, Motta said he will put Wes Unseld on him.

Kevin Grevey will get the assignment to guard Tomjanovich, the Rockets' leading scorer with a 21.6 average.

Grevey did a good job on Atlanta's John Drew Wednesday night, limiting him to 14 points in the 110-103 victory over Atlanta.

The last six games four of which Houston lost, Tomjanovich averaged only 9.8 points and shot 41 per cent from the field. For the season, he is 51 per cent.

The Rockets lead the NBA in field-goal percentage, making 48.6 per cent of their shots. They haven't reached that mark in any of their last six games, however.

Picking up the slack during the slump has been the 5-10 Murphy. He has averaged 24.2 points in that span.

The Bullets' Phil Chenier appeared to be shooting his way out of a five-game slump Wednesday with a five-for-eight performance in the first quarter. Then he was ejected after a run-in with official Bill Oakes.

With Chenier out and Elvin Hayes scoring only two points in the first half, the Bullets still managed to come from behind to beat the Hawks.

Motta called the effort, "One of our more significant wins."

A victory tonight would be even more significant.It would even the season series with Houston and,M if the Rockets and Bullets should tie for the division championship, the next step in the tie-breaking procedure is the record within the conference.

A victory over the Rockets would give Washington a 23-14 record within the Eastern Conference, compared with 20-19 for the Rockets.

"We've been waiting for this game a long time," Hayes said. "We aren't going to blow it."