HOUSTON, FEB. 20 -- Digging themselves a gigantic hole with poor shooting from the field, the Washington Bullets fell behind by 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter and lost a 115-109 decision to the Houston Rockets.

Apart from center Moses Malone, who led the team with 27 points and 15 rebounds, the visitors, who fell to 19-30, were devoid of any kind of offensive consistency. That was especially true in the first three periods, when Washington shot a combined 24 for 67 from the field.

For the game, starters Terry Catledge, Bernard King and Jeff Malone were 12 for 45 from the floor. Collectively, the abysmal marksmanship made the team's 43-point fourth quarter and subsequent rally almost irrelevant.

It also contrasted mightily with the efforts of Houston's Purvis Short. A streak shooter who's one of the hardest players in the league to stop when he's on, the veteran swingman scored 33 points on 14 of 22 shooting.

"There's nothing you can do," said Jeff Malone, who had the unfortunate task of trying to guard against Short's rainbow jumper. "You can put a hand up but he shoots so high. I don't understand how he shoots. It looks like he's just throwing it up."

Short didn't argue with the assessment of his technique, only adding that, "I'm fortunate to be able to shoot it that way. It took a lot of practice. I have confidence in my shot, when I can hit two or three in a row it feels like I can't be stopped."

Washington entered the game shorthanded. Guard Frank Johnson participated in pregame shooting but when the team was introduced, the veteran was in street clothes. Johnson had suffered an elbow injury while diving to the floor against the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 9. Although he continued to play in games afterwards, the swelling in the joint has persisted.

It's arguable if Johnson's defense could have made much difference, especially since Short wasn't the only player the Bullets had trouble with.

Although outplayed by Moses Malone, his basketball tutor, Akeem Olajuwon had 23 points and 12 rebounds for Houston which improved its record to 30-19. Power forward Jim Petersen, who has settled comfortably into his full-time role since Ralph Sampson was traded to Golden State, had 22 points and 13 rebounds. Even so, the game was definitely within the Bullets' grasp, particularly in the early going.

Moses Malone had 11 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter as Washington took a 25-18 lead. They stretched their advantage to 32-22 with 9:30 to play in the half and led, 35-26, seven minutes before intermission.

But then the bottom fell out for Washington. The Bullets went almost eight minutes without a field goal. Houston scored 14 straight points and went on an 18-4 run to go ahead 44-39 at halftime.

At the start of the third quarter, the Rockets went on an 18-6 spree. The scene -- with the visitors inability to hit a shot -- was reminiscent of the team's January 2 game at Capital Centre, when Houston opened the second half by scoring the first 21 points of the third quarter.

The next day, Kevin Loughery was fired as Washington coach. Wes Unseld was named as his replacement, however, no coach can do little more than watch helplessly when the ball isn't going into the basket.

"I don't know what to do about that," Unseld said. "Shooting is shooting. Sometimes the shots just don't go in."

A bigger problem was getting good shots off at all. On the surface, the Bullets poor shooting percentage could be attributed to forced shots. But that almost becomes a necessity when a team doesn't properly execute its plays.

"We don't get great ball movement out of our first unit sometimes," Unseld said. "We can't come down and set up every time; that makes it hard for Bernard and Jeff because we're not a good picking team and that makes it harder for them to get their shots off."

Tonight that cost the Bullets even more because, as they fell further and further behind, it became necessary to go to their trapping and pressing defense. Unfortunately for Washington, the move to an open court, uptempo game effectively negated what Moses Malone does best. As a result, despite his wonderful night, the center was on the bench for the final 7:34 of the game.

Even so, the Bullets almost came away with the win, cutting an 83-63 deficit to less than 10 a number of times during the waning minutes. John Williams scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, a driving layup making it 107-100 with 3:24 left. Two free throws by Charles Jones with 2:43 left brought Washington to 108-102 but the team got only four points in the next 1:53.

Williams hit a three-point field goal to make it 112-109 with 20 seconds left. But the Bullets could get no closer, leaving them tantalizingly short once again.