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East Meets Best

Hakeem Olajuwon and the streaking Houston Rockets tied an NBA mark in routing the New York Knicks

When the Houston Rockets arrived in Manhattan last week, they found more than a hint of hostility in the December air. Having already deemed the rest of the Eastern Conference unworthy of their full contempt, the New York Knicks and their fans needed an outlet for their aggression. So when the undefeated Rockets came strolling into town with a 14-0 record, putting them one victory shy of the NBA record for consecutive wins at the start of a season, all of New York was brimming with serious attitude, particularly the Knicks' two brawny forwards, Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. "This is the wrong place to try to set a record," Mason said. Added Oakley, "They'll feel the pressure of just being in New York. When they come to the Garden, it's like a zoo, so it'll be more pressure because all the animals will be loose."

New York is one of the few places where a player can compare the populace to the denizens of a zoo and mean it as a compliment, which helps explain why the New York-Houston meeting on Thursday was the most eagerly anticipated matchup of the young season, capturing the public's attention as regular-season games rarely do. Sure, eight of the Rockets' wins during the streak had come on the road, but none of them had been in the home of the Eastern Conference's best and certainly most brutal team.

The Knicks, who seem to have set themselves up as defenders of a throne they don't own, had been rooting for the Rockets to remain unbeaten until they reached New York, as if Houston were a Christmas turkey to be fattened up before the kill. And as everyone waited to see just how the Rockets and their wondrous center, Hakeem Olajuwon, would react to the wilting pressure of pure New York bloodlust, Oakley had more words of caution for the visitors. "It may be lopsided," he said two days before the game.

As it turned out the only thing that was lopsided was the Rockets' lead throughout most of the evening. They ended up 94-85 winners in a contest that wasn't nearly that close, to earn a share of the 45-year-old record and leave the Knicks seriously shaken. Houston's remarkable run ended the following night in Atlanta with a 133-111 loss to the Hawks, who know a little something about winning streaks themselves (page 32), but breaking the record had always been a secondary issue for Houston, which was less concerned with history than with the present—and the future. After all, the co-owners of the mark, the 1948-49 Washington Capitols, did not become NBA champs; they lost to the Minneapolis Lakers in the Finals.

By the time the Rockets left Madison Square Garden, they had attained something far more important than a place in the record book. They had firmly established themselves not only among the league's elite teams, but also—O.K., so it's early—as the team to beat. "If we have to come back here in June [for the NBA Finals], and people say we can't win in New York, hey, we've done it," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Meanwhile the Rockets' domination of the swaggering Knicks left the New Yorkers no longer pounding their chests but scratching their heads. The game that was supposed to answer questions about the Rockets ended up revealing more about the Knicks. "They talked it, but we walked it," said Houston guard Vernon Maxwell.

As usual the Rockets fell in step behind Olajuwon, who outscored New York's Patrick Ewing 37-12 and outrebounded him 13-8 in a one-sided confrontation that will surely be remembered by MVP voters. But the aesthetic difference between the two centers was even greater, as Olajuwon displayed a combination of quickness and balletic grace that made Ewing look like a plodder by comparison. Olajuwon doesn't battle Godzilla in sneaker ads as Charles Barkley does or make rap videos like Shaquille O'Neal's or have an alter ego like Larry Johnson's Grandmama, so he will just have to settle for being the best player in basketball.

Still, the days when the Rockets relied solely on Olajuwon to cut and slash his way through double and triple teams are gone. Second-year forward Robert Horry gives Houston a second shot-blocker; and its sometimes maligned backcourt of Maxwell and point guard Kenny Smith—with key contributions from reserves Mario Elie, Scott Brooks and Sam Cassell—has been steady, even dynamic.

"A lot of it has to do with their maturity," Milwaukee Buck coach Mike Dunleavy says of the Rockets' success. "In the past when they got leads, you always felt you could come back on them. This year they're different." They are different largely because of an unrelenting team defense that was giving up a scant 92.1 points per game at week's end and didn't allow an opponent to score 100 points until the Hawk rout. All of which makes it easy to understand why Olajuwon, in his 10th NBA season, feels much better about his supporting cast than he did as recently as 1½ years ago, when he was itching to be traded.

Before a game against the Bucks in Houston earlier last week, Olajuwon leaned his chair back into his locker room stall, extended his arm before him and made a long, graceful sweep, as if to say, Behold my teammates, with whom I am well pleased. "I look around this room, and many of the faces I see are the same, but there is something different in the eyes," he says. "We are changed somehow. What is the word I'm looking for? Transformed, that's it. We have been transformed."

Nothing much changed from what was an ordinary team two years ago, not until the Rockets endured a seven-game losing streak early last season. In retrospect that slide was the beginning of the metamorphosis, the darkness before the light. "In a way it was probably the best thing that could have happened to a new coach," Tomjanovich says. "After seven straight losses it's not hard to get players to commit to a little different way of doing things." Since the end of that skid the Rockets have gone 57-12, with two 15-game winning streaks and another string of 10 straight victories.

The dramatic change in the team's fortunes was not the result of drastic changes by Tomjanovich. He simply began to emphasize defense and soon had his team defusing the opposition's transition game, contesting even' shot and helping out more—especially when Olajuwon went for a block, which used to leave the stationary Rockets vulnerable to layups. "Now if I force a man to go baseline, I know I'm getting help," Smith says. "Every time. [Tomjanovich] has helped us get to the point where each guy completely trusts every other guy to be where he has to be on defense."

As popular as Tomjanovich is among the players, his decisions sometimes make them wonder. One odd practice is his replacing Smith, the starting point guard, with the 5'11" Brooks at the beginning of the fourth quarter of almost every game. In fact, Brooks and Elie played more fourth-quarter minutes during the streak than any other Rocket. Those two reserves epitomize the Houston bench—anonymous but effective. There is a growing suspicion around the league that Brooks is actually Michael J. Fox with a blond bleach job. (Ever seen them together?) Whoever he is, Brooks takes care of the ball and has the jump shot (as indicated by his .535 shooting percentage this season) to make opponents pay for leaving him open to double-team Olajuwon.

Because veterans Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe and Smith are mostly soft-spoken, Elie's leadership and toughness—he has been playing recently with a broken bone in his right hand—have been especially valuable.

"When we were fighting for playoff position last year, I'd go home and watch Portland on my satellite dish," says Tomjanovich. "I'd root for the Blazers to fall apart, but they hardly ever did; Elie usually had a lot to do with it. That's when I knew he was the kind of player I wanted."

In New York the Rockets handled the Knicks with such surprising ease that they didn't even need to clamp down in the fourth quarter. "We had a Plan B and a Plan C," Tomjanovich said, "but we never had to go away from Plan A." Ewing's inept performance against Olajuwon was something of an aberration, but the matchup showed what the Knicks had hoped to hide: that when they are neutralized (not to mention outplayed) in the pivot, they are in deep trouble. With guard John Starks as New York's only outside threat, the Rockets were free to surround Ewing to their hearts' content, daring the Knicks to beat them from the perimeter. "They're a good team, but after Patrick and John, they're basically a group of role players," says Maxwell.

When Oakley left early in the fourth quarter with blood pouring from his forehead, courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from reserve forward Carl Herrera, it was impossible to escape the symbolism: The Rockets had left the Knicks battered and bloody, in dire need of patching up. Some of the healing has to come in the back-court, where bricklaying backup point guard Greg Anthony, though an effective defender, is fast becoming too much of an offensive liability (he's shooting .286 from the field). "One game in December," said Oakley as the Rockets headed for their plane to Atlanta. "No reason to get too carried away by one game in December." True, but the Knicks have to be troubled by seeing the same flaws in December that haunted them last June.

That was undoubtedly why Knick president Dave Checketts and vice-president/general manager Ernie Grunfeld made a rare visit to practice on Friday. By that point it was already apparent that another offensive threat in the back-court is badly needed. With names like Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, Derek Harper of the Dallas Mavericks and Jeff Hornacek of the Philadelphia 76ers constantly floating about the rumor network, the Knick brain trust may now have some options that demand serious consideration.

The Rockets, by contrast, seem to have erased their own bad memories, most recently their loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the seventh game of the Western Conference semis last season. Such disappointments may have been why Houston fans weren't carried away by the Rockets' streak; there were 2,093 empty seats at the Summit in Houston for the 14th win, against Milwaukee. Maybe it's time for the Rockets to try a new marketing approach, one that lets the locals know there's a show playing in their own backyard that was a major hit in New York.



Olajuwon (reaching for ball) made moves that left Ewing (33), and all of New York, agape.



The Rocket game plan, outlined by assistant Bill Berry, had the Knick starters in a daze.



Elie, now with his sixth NBA team, epitomizes the Rocket reserves—faceless but effective.