Maybe being in a chase for the playoffs isn't enough for the Washington Bullets. Maybe they need the sounds and surroundings of a big crowd, even if it isn't totally partial. Before a Capital Centre sellout of 19,105 -- largely drawn, for sure, by Houston's Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon -- the Bullets played one of their finest games of the season last night to beat the Rockets, 120-114.

They regrouped from their key loss two nights earlier in New Jersey to their rival for third place in the NBA Atlantic Division to bounce back over .500, at 34-33 and a half-game in front of the Nets.

With Sampson and Olajuwon providing a more than formidable presence underneath the basket, the Bullets, as they did in a 123-115 victory over the Rockets in Houston on Feb. 23, relied on their outside game to emerge with the victory.

Jeff Malone led Washington with 36 points, 26 in the second half. Fellow guard Gus Williams was strong throughout the contest, scoring 30 points and passing off for nine assists.

The Bullets also got 26 points and 10 rebounds from Cliff Robinson up front. The Rockets (39-27) were led by Sampson. In his only regular-season visit here, the University of Virginia graduate scored 32 points and got 16 rebounds.

The usual ticket allotment for a visiting NBA player is two but in the Rockets' locker room before the game's start, Sampson had to contend with doling out 40 passes to family members and friends. That type of following, plus the sheer number of people present, gave the impression that Capital Centre was really nothing more than a home away from home for Houston.

But, with their hearts in the right places, the Bullets took away any semblance of a visiting-court advantage, scoring 22 of the game's first 29 points in an amazing display of shooting and open-court basketball.

The Washington lead reached as many as 15 points, 22-7, before another familiar face, guard John Lucas, entered the lineup for the Rockets. Lucas proceeded to lead an 11-4 run that put his team in position to make a real game out of the apparent runaway.

In fact, the Rockets, down by 30-25 at the quarter, would take a 56-52 lead into halftime, Sampson leading the way with 18 points. Things began to look even grimmer for Washington when Houston went on another run, this one 12-8, to a 68-60 lead with 7:39 to play in the third period.

From that point, however, the Bullets outscored the opposition, 30-9, the remainder of the period to shoot in front, 90-77. The key man in that drive was Malone, with 13..

"Everything started feeling good, the release of the ball, the rotation, everything. Even when it didn't go in, I thought the shots were good," said Malone, who has scored more than 30 points in four of the last five games. "Against New Jersey I felt that I wasn't aggressive enough, I was just running around. Tonight I said I would change that and I did."

Even still, it seemed Malone's aggressiveness might not be enough. Sampson, who said that being in the area made him feel "rejuvenated," brought his team back in the fourth period, scoring and rebounding. After three quarters, the Bullets were down by just one in rebounds, 35-34, but with five minutes to play, the Rockets had brought the margin to 50-39.

For that reason, the Bullets' lead then was a far from secure 102-97. Once again, however, Malone took control, scoring nine points, including a pair of three-point plays, to seal the outcome.

"We really played a great game tonight," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "It looked a little touch and go there for a while but then we bounced back and really exploded by them. And they have a terrific team."

The Bullets don't play again until Tuesday night against Atlanta in New Orleans, tonight's game against the Detroit Pistons having been rescheduled to April 12 because of the collapsed roof at the Pontiac Silverdome.