The game wasn't a lot like the first one, but the Houston Rockets defeated the Washington Bullets for the second time this season, 114-109, last night before 13,123 at Capital Centre.

Ralph Sampson, recovering from a bruised back, did not play for the Rockets.

The Bullets had a chance to erase a three-point deficit with about five seconds left, but Kevin McKenna's three-point shot bounced off the rim.

Sampson's absence wasn't the only change in personnel since Houston's 87-86 victory over the Bullets Jan. 11. The Rockets are now without guard John Lucas, waived from the team for a drug abuse relapse, and Washington has Kevin Loughery coaching instead of Gene Shue.

Small wonder the game was entirely different out on the floor. January's final score was matched, precisely, by the end of the third period last night: Rockets 87, Bullets 86. In a shootout filled with long stretches of individual dominance, the final and perhaps most important came from Houston's Jim Petersen.

Replacing Sampson in the lineup, and working with Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon in foul trouble, second-year forward Petersen scored 18 points and cleared 11 rebounds, with eight of each coming in the final two quarters. That meshed nicely with guard Allen Leavell's season-high 28 points (19 in the second half) and more than offset another brilliant final two quarters of play, these by the Bullets' Jeff Malone, who finished with 34 points.

"Before the game we talked about two things, stopping Olajuwon and stopping them on the offensive boards," said Loughery. "I think 75 percent of their points down the stretch tonight came off the boards."

But Olajuwon led with 20 rebounds as Houston outrebounded the Bullets, 53-43, with 20 coming at the offensive end and such work being converted into 18 points. Two of the Rockets' last three field goals were on offensive rebounds. The second, by Petersen, provided a 108-105 lead with 1:48 to play and Houston was able to hang on.

An anticipated duel between Olajuwon and Washington's tall man, Manute Bol, never materialized, mainly because the Bullets' rookie center picked up three personal fouls in the first four minutes of the game.

Olajuwon was having almost as much difficulty escaping the referees' whistles. With 2:06 left in the third quarter, he was called for his fourth foul; he got his fifth 10 seconds after that. Then he drew a technical for complaining about the two calls.

At the time, Washington held an 84-80 lead, mainly because of Malone, who had scored 14 points in the period. Now, however, Malone missed the technical foul shot and Leavell, completing a 13-point quarter himself, scored five in a row to help the Rockets to their 87-86 margin.

"I think that's where we lost the game," said Loughery. "Olajuwon committed his fifth foul, we missed the technical and then we didn't convert during the next four or five trips down the court."

It wasn't the first time that Washington (35-40) failed to take advantage of an opportunity. The Bullets began the game with a 13-1 run but were behind, 32-29, at the quarter.

"We had that big lead and let them come back," said Malone. "I think we might have relaxed a bit."

That certainly didn't apply to Petersen, whose only notable lapse in 45 minutes of playing time came at the end of the third period when he lost the ball to Washington's Dudley Bradley for a basket.

"He did a great job tonight," said Rockets Coach Bill Fitch. "If it wasn't for those last two seconds I'd adopt him. He's the kind of guy that you ride all the time, never say anything good to, and he just keeps getting better and better."

Said Petersen, "Playing practicing against Akeem and Ralph all the time, you can't help but get better, but it helps to get some playing time, too. It's tough to develop when you're only getting six minutes here and six minutes there."

Washington, which has lost to division leaders back to back, now travels to Atlanta, where it will face the Hawks (30-6 at home) on Tuesday. Two night later, the Bullets play New Jersey at the Meadowlands. The Nets game, the last in the season series, could ultimately decide whom the Bullets face in the opening round of the playoffs.

"Then, we'll have to play up to our full potential if we expect to do anything," said Loughery, now 3-3 as the Bullets' coach.