A free throw by Bob Dandridge with five seconds to play stood up as the deciding point in Washington's 105-104 win over Houston tonight.
The Bullets' third consecutive road win also was the fourth straight setback for Houston.
The Bullets' ninth win in their last 16 road games pulled them to within two games of a playoff spot in the NBA Eastern Conference. Houston fell 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in the West.
Although the Bullets waited until the final five seconds for Dandridge's free throw, they all but wrapped the game up with 17 seconds remaining. At that point, Robert Reid picked up his sixth foul on a charge with the Bullets leading, 104-101.
Houston then wasted 12 seconds before fouling Dandridge and putting him at the line. His free throw gave the Bullets an insurmountable four-point lead.
Calvin Murphy put in a three-point field goal at the buzzer for the Rockets.
Houston made up eight points and took its only lead of the second half at 101-100 on a Murphy layup with 2:10 left to play.
Del Harris, the Rocket coach, was steamed that his team never got a trip to the free throw line after that.
"They made five free throws after that and we didn't get to shoot any," Harris said.
Houston was charged with 22 of the game's 37 fouls.
Bullet Coach Gene Shue was pleased that Wes Unseld held up as well as he did on a knee injury.
Unseld notched only 18 minutes but effectively massaged Moses Malone in that time frame.
"Over the years, Wes has played Malone as well as anyone in the league," Shue said.
"Malone is such a strong offensive rebounder, you can't let him get inside on you. Wes handled it well while he was in there. So did Mitch Kupchak and Elvin (Hayes) sagged in to help, too."
Malone managed 25 points, but the Bullets did such neat work in forcing the Rocket offense outside that guards Murphy, Allen Leavell and Mike Dunleavy were Houston's only other double-figure scores at 23, 14 and 12.
Back-to-the wall Houston, now three games under .500, is down to its last 12 games. Said Harris, "We've got to win eight of them to make the playoffs."
The Bullets appeared far more capable than Houston of reaching the playoffs.
"We're playing games that we have to have and our team is responding," Shue said.
The Bullets responded at the free-throw line, hitting 18 of their 21 opportunities for 85.7 percent. Houston missed six of its 17 free-throw chances.
Looking like anything but a team in the fifth game of a road trip, the Bullets trailed only twice all night. They were down, 4-0, on field goals by Reid and Malone. Hayes and Greg Ballard put in buckets to tie the game and a Kevin Porter layup made it 6-4. The only other Washington deficit came on the Murphy shot that sent Houston into a 101-100 lead.
The Bullet defense limited Houston to 10 field goals by forwards and centers other than Malone.
The game marked the Bullets' only Houston appearance this season. When Washington and Hayes play here, speculation always rises over whether the former Universtiy of Houston forward will end his career as a Rocket.
Asked whether he would like to have Hayes here, Harris' eyes twinkled before he said, "I can't answer that question. It's against the rules."