Who would have imagined it? Even casual basketball fans are shaking their heads in bafflement -- and dismay -- about Ralph Sampson. Of all the tags that could have been stuck to him, however briefly, nobody even remotely considered this one: thug.

The first punch Sampson threw at Jerry Sichting Thursday night got him ejected from Game 5 of the Celtics-Rockets series for the NBA championship. His second and third punches should earn a suspension for a few games at the beginning of next season.

Keeping Sampson from the sixth game, Sunday in Boston, would be cruel and unusual punishment, and the NBA said yesterday that was not an option. Cruel and unusual not for Sampson, but for Houston teammates who deserve to battle the Celtics at full force.

Officials Jack Madden and Hugh Evans were absolutely right to throw Sampson out of the game and absolve Sichting and Dennis Johnson from blame.

The usually calm and thoughtful Dick Stockton argued this was unfair. Perhaps to counter the former Celtic at his side, Tom Heinsohn, Stockton said that Sampson should have been allowed to stay in the game.

You don't leave a team without one of its stars in such critical times, the CBS play-by-play man insisted. And so early, Mount Sampson having erupted about two minutes into the second quarter.

Most of the time, Stockton's reasoning is valid. An official should be more tolerant than usual in playoff games. He should let the players decide their fate whenever possible. Technical fouls usually are a better way to handle fights than a heave-ho thumb.

But this occasion called for exactly what the officials did, because this was not an equal-opportunity fight. Sampson is 7-4; Sichting is 6-1. Besides, the Celtics guard didn't do enough to provoke much more than a stern cussing.

There was shoving near half-court and under the basket. The way it came over the instant-replay machine, however, I have seen more aggressive bumping than Sichting's on the Farragut North Metro stop at rush hour.

Little old ladies have been more rude lunging for asparagus in the supermarket. Sichting might have merited a foul, but not a busted face.

Sampson acted disgracefully. In case you missed it, Sampson twice swung wildly at Sichting and once at Dennis Johnson. Then the Celtics' Bill Walton put Sampson on the floor, not too gently, where he could do no more harm.

Probably, earlier Celtics body-checks had been unnoticed by Madden and Evans. Possibly, the Celtics were trying to light the short fuse Sampson has been showing of late.

Incredibly, Sampson has thrown more punches than Gerry Cooney the last couple of weeks. He was restrained from nailing the Lakers' Maurice Lucas, a certified NBA tough who may well have been checking Sampson's courage in unfamiliar territory.

Sampson rarely intrudes in the paint, the low-post area near the basket where a giant's manhood is tested every few seconds. Until recently, his visits have been brief and passive.

The final minutes against the Lakers and the games against the Celtics have turned loose a new Sampson: Ralph as Rambo.

That's the public perception. Until the Sichting mess, Sampson was all but earning medals for mettle. In Lucas, he went after a worthy opponent; in Boston during Game 2, he recovered from a five-stitch cut under his left eye and played well.

He and Akeem Olajuwon have much to learn about low-post play in the NBA. It ain't a pretty place; more saloon than salon. An elbow to the ribs comes about as soon as the next breath. If you can't roll with the blows and deliver a few, you slink back to the demilitarized zone: forward.

It was unfortunate that the only two former players to comment immediately on the incident were ex-Celtics: Heinsohn and Dave Cowens. Still, the issue seemed clear-cut.

What else could Madden and Evans have done? Sichting hardly was minding his own business, but Sampson grabbed the trigger on his temper and pulled it.

Whether their absent captain deserves any credit for it, the Rockets played brilliantly without Sampson. The seldom-seen Mitchell Wiggins and Jim Petersen were especially stunning.

How the post-Sampson play came across one time zone removed was this: The Rockets seemed to be looking for an excuse to become inspired; the Celtics seemed to be looking for an excuse to take the rest of the night off.

With Walton, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in the lineup at the same time, the Celtics still couldn't keep Olajuwon and some others off the offensive boards.

Larry Bird once fired a three-pointer blank -- with no Celtic in position for a rebound. Petersen blocked McHale on consecutive trips up the court.

Parish was dreadful, one for eight from the field with three rebounds in 22 minutes.

He's better than that. Much better. So are the Celtics. They will be a special team if they win one of the next two games.

Why vacillate? Make that when they win one of the next two games, not if. The Celtics have been playing this season to get themselves mentioned with storied teams and are not about to fall one victory short.

His disappearances to the contrary, Parish is vastly underrated. With the once-peerless Walton, the Celtics have a Hall of Famer at center. They may have the most complete player ever in Bird. McHale and Dennis Johnson are skilled and earnest workers.

This is a deep team full of what Walton calls "the spirit of winning." It soon will hoist another banner atop Boston Garden.

Sampson also has a chance to recover from his embarrassment. Two more observations: Sampson still seems uncertain about where he belongs, on the court and in his sport. And for one so tall, he still has a bit of growing up to do.