The big game came and went and left the Washington Bullets in big trouble.
The upstart Houston Rockets virtually clinched the Central Division title and all but mathematically eliminated the Bullets from the chase with their come-from-behind victory Friday night at Capital Centre.
The Rockets lead the Bullets by 2 1/2 games going into last might's play. Houston had only four games left including an encounter with Cleveland last night.
The Bullets have five remaining beginning with this afternoon's contest with the New York Nets at Capital Centre at 1:45.
Since Houston won the season series from Washington three games to one if two teams should tie for the championship the Rockets would be declared winners.
Any combination of two Houston victories or Washington defeats will spell doom for the Bullets.
"It's almost impossible for us to win the division now," dejected Bullet coach Dick Motta said after sending his team through practice yesterday.
"There's a small chance we can still win but, hell, we just blew a great chance."
The division winner will get a bye in the first round of the playoffs and the homecourt advantage in the second round. The team with the best record in the conference will be assured of the homecourt advantage in all conference playoff series in which it plays.
As the standings are now the Bullets are most likely to finish third in the Eastern Conference, behind Philadelphia and Atlantic Division winner and likely conference leader, and Houston.
San Antonio has the fourth-best record in the conference, followed by Cleveland and Boston.
The Bullets would play a best-of-three series with sixth-place Boston being either Tuesday or Wednesday, April 12 or 13 at Capital Centre.
Fourth-place San Antonio would play fifth-place Cleveland beginning in San Antonio in another best-of-three series.
The Spurs - Cavaliers winner would then play the 76ers in a best-of-seven series while the Bullets-Celtics winner would play the Rockets in a best-of-seven series.
The Bullets beat the Celtics all four meetings this season.
In addition to the Nets, the Bullets still have to play Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia twice in the regular season.
Houston shot only 37 per cent from the floor Friday night, had only six assists, its leading scorer for the season. Rudy Tomjanovich, went one for eight from the field and the Rockets were 15 points behind with 1:21 left in the third quarter. But they stormed past the seemingly hypnotized Bullets to win, 91-85.
Mike Newlin scored all 15 of his points in the fourth quarter and Moses Malone dominated the inside game with 27 rebounds and 20 points.
Elvin Hayes never was in the game and made only two of 11 shots and scored a season-low five points.
Phil Chenier continued his awful shooting as he went 8-24 and missed his last six shots. He also made some critical judgment errors in the fourth quarter.
He hurried down court and forced up a bad shot with the Bullets down by only one point and Motta having already instructed him to call a time-out. Chenier later threw a careless pass which was intercepted when the Bullets were down by only three.
The greater part of the Bullet offense is designed to get Hayes the ball in the low post or to set up Chenier for his jump shot. Against the Rockets that part of the Bullet offense made 10 or 33 shots and accounted for a total of 22 points.
"We just have to get the pieces together," Motta said. "We have to take things one game at a time. That was a discouraging loss, but we can't panic. Our backs are certainly against the wall, through." CAPTION:
Picture 1, Mitch Kupchak powers his way to the basket for a lefthanded two-pointer for the Bullets, keeping Kevin Kunnert at bay and forcing Moses Malone into a backbend. The Rockets rallied for a 91-85 win. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Kervin Kunnert of the Rockets goes up for a loose ball as Elvin Hayes of the Bullets watces helplessly. UPI