Moses Malone tried to play a one on-five game tonight against the Washington Bullets. Even one as talented as the Houston Rockets' center couldn't beat those odds.
Once Malone tired in the fourth period, the puzzling Rockets, who have so much talent but play with the gaze of uninspired atheltes, crumbled before a game-ending four minute Bullet blitz, 101-96.
This was the first time in more than a month that Washington has been involved in a slow paced, grind-it-out NBA contest. For 36 minutes, the rustiness showed. Then the Rockets and Malone reached out and gave a helping hand.
Malone had 19 points in the first three periods and 29 with nine minutes to go. when Houston led by 10. He didn't score again or grab another rebound to add to his collection of 20. And his teammates did their best to ignore him inside, being content instead of fire up a wild assortment of off, balance jumpers and airball layups.
The result: the Rockets didn't score a field goal in the final five minutes, going zero for seven from the floor while tossing in three turnovers.
The grateful Bullets outscored Houston. 14.2. down the stretch, with Kevin Grevey. Mitch Kupchak and Bob Dandridge all contributing four points apiece.
Eight of those points came off fast breaks, a rare occurrence most of the night for Washington, which had been a nonstop running team in winning 11 of its last 12 games.
But this sixth straight road victory also had another oddity: Grevey's shooting eye showed up in the second half.
The Bullet guard's normal game is to get off to a blazing start, then join the fans after intermission. Last night he reversed that trend, scoring four points the first half and 21 in the second. His 12 third-quarter points were especially important, because they kept Washington close when the Rockets threatened to pull away for good.
"I had such a bad first half that I made up my mind not to force anything in the second." said Grevey. "I got some blocked (by Malone) in the first and I didn't want that to bother me. I told myself to go straight up on my shots and to be smooth."
He got a big helping hand from Kupchak, who played 30 minutes in relief of Elvin Hayes (who fouled out with 8:24 left) and Wes Unseld (who had five fouls most of the fourth quarter). Kupchak finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, but his most important contribution came on defense against the wily Malone.
Malone is too quick for Unseld, who is hampered by the stronger enforecement against hand-checking this season. He also has good success against Hayes. But the two Bullets combined to wear him down in the early going, as he took a physical battering for almost every offensive rebound he snagged.
At the end, Kupchak realized Malone wasn't working as had as he was before. Maybe he was tired. maybe I was playing good defense. Whatever it was, he didn't do anything.'
Kupchak blocked one Malone shot, out-rebounded him twice on missed attempts and forced a three-second call. At the other basket, he got the Bullet's closing spurt on track with a 15-footer, a layup off a fine feed from Dandridge and an assist on a Dandridge fast-break layup.
After two Grevey field goals, Houston finally broke its drought with two foul shots to pull within 97-96. Grevey missed a jumper and the Rockets had one last chance to keep the door ajar. But Dandridge blocked a Rick Barry drive from behind, then sprinted past Rudy Tompanovich for a layup with 32 seconds remaining and the Bullets could celebrate.
"It's hard when one guy has to do all their rebounding," Hayes said about Malone. "He's good, real good but there are a lot of us against one of him. He can't go the whole day at a hard pace."
Added Kupchak: "We tried to make sure whoever guarded him concentrated on keeping him off the boards while the other front-court people got rebounds. That worked out fine finally."
Both Barry and Tomjanovich disappeared after intermission, sitting on the bench most of the way while Dwight Jones and Robert Reid filled in. Barry garnered only two points in the half, Tomjanovich none. It had been Barry's eight points as an oversized guard in the second period that enabled Houston to take a 53-44 lead.
The Rockets' lack of a competent playmaker (come back, John Lucas) was especailly evident in the fourth quarter. No one took charge, no one got the ball inside but everyone took turns shooting low-percentage, doomed-to-failure attempts.
It was bad enough to force an immediate after-the-game meeting between Coach Tom Nissalke and General Manager Ray Patterson. While they were frowning, the Bullets were smiling, knowing they now have three straight games at Capital Centre.
"We played just well enough to win," said Coach Dick Motta. "We might have lost this last year. But that's why we are a better team this time around."