The Washington Bullets did everything that was necessary tonight to beat the Houston Rockets, who entered the game 19-0 this season at the Summit.
However, when a team is as hot as Houston is, sometimes doing everything right just isn't enough. Even though the Bullets came back from a 12-point Houston run late in the third quarter, the Rockets came away with an 87-86 NBA victory when Akeem Olajuwon tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer.
The low score was one indication of the Bullets' effectiveness in the game, played before a sellout crowd of 16,016. The Rockets entered the game averaging 118 points, but their offense -- and the tempo of the game -- were controlled by Washington's slowdown strategy.
For the most part, the Bullets also managed to neutralize the Rockets' trio of Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson and John Lucas. The 6-foot-11 Olajuwon, averaging 24 points a game, was held to 18. The 7-4 Sampson's 18-point norm was sliced in half, and Lucas, a 6-3 point guard, was unable to get the Houston running game in gear.
Meanwhile, the Bullets were toughing it out inside against their taller foes. Cliff Robinson scored 26 points and Dan Roundfield was both dazzling and dominating on the boards, pulling down 16 rebounds.
Then there was Leon Wood. Acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers one day before, the 6-3 guard had only a nodding acquaintance with the Washington offense but was able to free-lance his way to 17 points in 23 minutes.
"If I know basketball players in general, I know that they're in their locker room thinking they got away with one," said Wood. "They stole it. They never got us to go into their game."
It appeared the Bullets were going to be the team to creep away with a win and leave the Rockets four short of tying the NBA record for consecutive victories at home. The mark of 23 was set by the Rochester Royals in the 1949-50 season.
With the Bullets trailing, 85-84, with 10 seconds remaining, Wood was called for an offensive foul after he drove into heavy traffic. But the Bullets regained possession when they pressed Houston in the back court. Sampson was entangled with Robinson, and Roundfield swooped in for a steal and layup.
Houston took a timeout with seven seconds left to set up a play, and Washington took one to diagram a defense for it. But something was lacking in the execution of that defense. The basketball was inbounded to Lucas, who penetrated the middle and passed off to Olajuwon, who missed a dunk attempt. The ball was batted over to Sampson, who missed a tip-in but knocked the ball to the other side of the rim.
There stood Olajuwon. This time, the basket was good and the buzzer sounded, leaving the Bullets players either standing in stunned silence or screaming loudly to the official timer or referees Lee Jones and Terry Durham.
Neither did any good, and what might have been another inspiring victory for Washington merely became its fourth loss in five games on this trip, which ended with the Bullets' record at 17-20.
"I've seen a lot of games like that since I've been coaching, and I hate to lose them," said Washington's Gene Shue. "I don't like losing, period, but especially when you're right there. We came in here with the idea that we'd win this game and end their streak. We wanted to be the team to do it."
Such vigor from opponents is exactly what Houston Coach Bill Fitch has come to expect.
"You're always gonna have games that are close, but having them with the record we've got going just makes it more intriguing for the next team that comes in," he said. "There are a lot of other records I'd like to have that I'd trade this one for."
Fitch felt that what happened in the 1:16 that preceded Olajuwon's last-second heroics was crucial to his team's victory. At that point, Washington had taken an 84-81 lead, breaking an 81-81 tie on a free throw, then a field goal, by Wood.
Fitch quickly took a timeout, something he said he might not normally have done. "I wanted to tell them that this is what it's all about," he said. "If we made one mistake, we might not have gotten the ball back until February. It wasn't like a 120-119 game, where everyone's scoring back and forth."
Lewis Lloyd sank an 18-foot jumper for Houston. Then, after Roundfield lost the ball in a thicket of players inside, the guard came back with another shot from 17 feet, setting up the game's final seconds.