The Washington Bullets lost their second-half offense tonight against the Houston Rockets when all-star forward Jeff Ruland was ejected for fighting midway in the fourth quarter. The Bullets went on to lose the NBA exhibition game, 97-91.

The fight in an otherwise hardly intense game was precipitated when forward Hank McDowell of the Rockets was boxing out Ruland as Frank Johnson's two free throws made it 82-80, Houston, with 6:15 to play. Both players were ejected.

"He elbowed me in my neck," Ruland said. "I pushed him. He swung at me and the next thing I know someone (referee Ronnie Nunn) was on my back. He threw the first punch and they threw me out. I don't understand that."

The punch missed Ruland and Nunn, whom Ruland thought had taken the blow.

McDowell is 6 feet 9 and a fourth-year reserve; Ruland is 6-10. "All I did was block him out and he hit me across the chest with his fist," McDowell said. "The ref wasn't going to do anything about it. You can't let them get away with that, even if they (Ruland and Rick Mahorn) are the Bruise Brothers.

"I've got my reputation to maintain, too. All you can say is it's just their game. They want to talk that stuff and intimidate you. That's all."

Just before the fight, as players lined up for the free throws, Mahorn pointed a finger in McDowell's face. Mahorn said later, "It was just basketball."

The ejection will cost each player $250. Ruland had scored 18 points at the time, getting 14 in the second half when Akeem Olajuwon (12 points, five rebounds in 32 minutes) was playing most of the time with five fouls.

Washington (1-4), still missing four of its top players because of injuries or contract problems, could not win on a night Houston Coach Bill Fitch hardly played starters Rodney McCray and Lewis Lloyd. Fitch wanted to give playing time to those who had had little in Houston's first six exhibition games.

The Rockets' Ralph Sampson, who played at the University of Virginia, was given a standing ovation by the Scope crowd of 8,317 during introductions. He played 28 minutes and was held to eight points and three rebounds.

John Lucas, the former Bullet, made amends for his poor showing in Friday night's game at Capital Centre by scoring a team-high 16 points. That included two breakaway layups, one following a steal from behind on Ruland, and a three-point goal late in the game.

The Bullets' best showing was by rookie guard Tom Sewell, with his second straight good game. Sewell finished with 15 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals in 21 minutes.

After Dudley Bradley had three fouls in the first eight minutes of the game, Sewell's 13 points and two steals helped the Bullets take a 48-42 halftime lead.

They close their exhibition season Monday night against the New Jersey Nets in Miami, with the season opener Friday against Chicago. With Gus Williams, Jeff Malone and Cliff Robinson returning from injuries and free agent forward Greg Ballard nearing a contract agreement ("Close, but nothing for sure," General Manager Bob Ferry said), Shue must cut two players by 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

"We have a numbers problem, and we have to make a decision by the end of the week," he said. "We'll be busy."