The National Basketball Association settled the officials strike just in time to find the Houston Rockets at its throat for, as the indignant Houston Chronicle chronicles, "its official explanation of why two officials who live in Philadelphia were assigned to referee" last week's game in which the Philadelphia 76ers eliminated the Central Division champions from the playoffs.

The Rockets wanted the league office and the supervisor of officials, John Nucatola, to look at film of the controversial calls that settled the 112-109 issue - particularly the charging call that nullified John Lucas' basket that would have tied the score at 111-111 with five seconds left. Nucatola was at the game and in a radio interview afterward termed the call by ref Jake O'Donnell on the play on which Doug Collins hit the deck a "textbook call." Houston film scanners feel otherwise.

"And," writes the Chronicle's John Wilson, "Three minutes before the final decisive call, O'Donnell had deprived Houston of a Mike Newlin basket that would have tied the game at that time, and the tape on this shows clearly that it was a bad call.

"And then for it to come out," Wilson went on, "that both officials are residents of the Philadelphia area was just a little much.This isn't to imply that O'Donnell was anything less than conscientious. But let's face it, Philadelphia was supposed to win, right? The network wanted Philadelphia to win because of the TV rating Dr J will draw."

A league spokesman said, "Five of perhaps the 10 most experienced officials live in the Philadelphia area. Would it make sense to eliminate half of the 10 . . . from the playoffs because Philadelphia is involved?"

And the Bullets thought it was bad to be relegated to the outside looking in . . . Incidentally, it's nice to know that Elvin (Praise Me or Trade Me) Hayes apparently won't be traded; we were worrying that without E the local I Quit Smoking campaign that he heads might go to pot . . . Heaven forbid - and forgive us, one more time, our press passes . . .