Who says the NBA's regular season never has any surprises?
All you have to do is look at tonight's Houston Rockets/Washington Bullets game at Capital Center at 8 to get enough shocks to last until at least January.
Surprise No. 1 probably will be the Bullet's starting center. Unless coach Dick Motta has a last-minute change of heart. Joe Pace will get the nod ahead of Mitch Kupchak, who has become so valuable in a sixth-man role that Motta feels uneasy not having him avilable to send into games.
Surprise No. 2 is the Rocket's season record: six wins, 10 defeats. That has them in last place in the NBA Central Division. And they were the preseason favorites to win the division.
Surprise No. 3 is the early season performance of Rocket guard John Lucas. All he has done so far in his second pro year is lead the NBA from day one in assists, twice picking up 18 in a game. If he keeps up his present pace of 11.4 a contest, he'll break Tiny Archibald's league record for a season.
Motta would rather start Wes Unseld at center instead of Pace, but Unseld experienced enough pain when he tried out his ailing right calf yesterday at practice that he is doubtful for tonight.
Pace, who was hardly playing a week ago, has been impressive enough the last four games (31 points, 20 rebounds) that Motta feels the secondyear player from Coppin State is capable of competing against the Rocket's front line.
"Joe has all the raw talent in the world." Motta said, "and it's just been a matter of him getting control over what he does."
"I still might change my mind and go with Mitch, so right now Joe is just probable. But I'm leaning his way."
Pace will be facing a Houston club that also is trying to get control of itself. If Lucas had been told before the season he'd be averaging 11 assists but the Rockets would be floundering, he probably couldn't have stopped laughing.
"That would have meant we'd be shooting maybe 55 per cent," he said. "But we aren't. We're not shooting well (46 per cent) and we aren't sneaking up on anyone anymore. We aren't playing consistently during entire games and we aren't getting much off the bench."
All of those problems are especially noticeable on the road. The Rockies have yet to win in six road appearances. They already have lost in Philadelphia and Boston on this trip, which concludes Monday night in New York.
Lucas is just as concerned that the club has fallen four times at home, compared with just seven loses all last season.
"Those are games we'll never make up," he said. "We could get ourselves so far behind that we may never catch up."
Nor have the schedule makers done the Rookies any favors. Nine of their next 14 games are on the road. After that stretch, they could be at a distinct disadvantage in the Central Division race.
Yet with a little better shooting the Rockets could begin winning as frequently as they have been losing. Of their 10 losses, seven have been by six or fewer points. In four of the last five defeats, they've shot less than 40 per cent.
"Even when were were going undefeated in the exhibition season, we didn't shoot that wel." Lucas said. "Now we are going good during games and then all of a sudden we hit a dry spell.
"Like agianst New Orleans last week, we scored only 16 points in one quarter. We've been playing good basketbell, and then we'll go crazy for a few minutes and lose all the game."
That the Rockets can indeed be poor shooters has to be news to Bullet fans, who can remember quite vividly how Houston's perimeter gunners ambushed Washington in last year's playoffs. They showed the same firepower against the Bullets in a 116-105 victory at Houston three weeks ago.
The Rockets are getting plenty of points out of their first seven players (the team is averaging 94.3 points a game), but the rest of the squad is contributing a trickle. Ed Ratleff, Robert Reid, Robin Jones and Larry Moffett are combining for just 10 points a contest.
Coach Tom Nissalke has juggled his lineup, benching Kevin Kunner (42 per cent shooter) for Dwight Jones and moving Moses Malone to center. That hasn't stopped the Rockets from losing: they have won just once since beating the Bullets, and that victory was over Portland, of all opponents.
"They want me to shoot more," said Lucas, who also would like to improve his 43 per cent shooting, "but I'd rather pass. That's the role I play in our offense.
"That's why I can't believe how high my assist total is. Just think what it would be if we were shooting better.
"When we beat the Bullets and I had 13 assists, our offense was running like it should. We were getting the ball inside to Moses and Kevin and not depending on our perimeter shooting.
"Ideally, we'd like to get 40 inside and 40 outside shots a game. Last year, we were getting a lot of jump shots, but they were from only 10 feet out. That's the high percentage shots we want.
"I'm not looking to gun too much. What sense does it make for me to take a 20-footer if I can penetrate and dump off to Mo and let him get a layup? Besides, I'd be monopolizing the ball too much."
Despite the team's poor start, Lucas said he's excited about his assist output, which includes two contests in which he has tied an NBA record with 12 assists in a quarter. After averaging 5-0 assists last year, he has had fewer than 10 assists in a game only twice this season, even though opponents are beginning to defense him differently.