Bullet coach Dick Motta said yesterday he may start Joe Pace instead of Mitch Kupchak at center Saturday night against Houston if Wes Unseld cannot play.

"We missed Mitch coming off the bench in the second half against Denver (Tuesday night)," Motta said. "I'd like to have him there for Houston."

But Motta said he fully expected Unseld to be able to play against the Rockets at Capital Centre.

"The doctors say Wes's injury is minor and I think he will be okay," said Motta. "I hope so. We missed him against Denver on the boards. We missed his stability and his guidance in the middle."

Unseld strained a muscle in his right calf against Buffalo Monday night and did not suit up for Denver. But team physican Dr. Stanford Lavine told him he had a good chance of playing over the weekend.

Pace received little playing time last year as a rookie and was buried on the bench again at the beginning of this season after a strong exhibition schedule showing that earned him a roster berth.

But Motta decided last week to give the 6-foot-9 former Towson State star more playing time. Pace responded with 16 points, a career high, against the Knicks Friday. He also had 10 first-half points against Denver to lead a Bullet comeback in the second quarter, but tired in the second half and, at one point, asked to come out of the game. He played 21 minutes in all and had nine rebounds.

"Joe is playing well, considering his inexperience," said Motta. "We just have to build up his durability."

Pace also has emerged as a favorite of the Capital Centre fans, who now anticipate one of his monster dunk shots everytime he touches the ball.

Kupchak and Pace combined for 21 points and 19 rebounds against Denver, but the Nuggets burned the Bullets all night on the offensive boards.

"We just weren't blocking out very well," said Motta. "It was a hard game to play. It was our fourth game in five nights and we were lethargic at times.

"But at least I thought Phil (Chenier) played better in the fourth quarter. That was encouraging."

The Bullets, now 8-7, will take two days off before resuming practice Friday. After the Rockets game, they don't play again until Wednesday against San Antonio at Capital Centre.

Unseld had played 108 straight regular-season games before Tuesday night . . . The crowd of 8,363 was a great disappointment to the Bullet management. Denver is one of the clubs they expect to attract sellout crowds.