It's time to take a 20-second timeout for a reality check. Did we see what we thought we saw in the first three games of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks? Was that really Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, this season's MVP, being bottled up on a regular basis by a barrel-chested former CBA forward with a five-inch height disadvantage? Did a happy-go-lucky rookie guard known as Smilin' Sam really slip into Madison Square Garden and steal a fourth quarter right out from under the noses of the disbelieving Knicks? Could that have been NBA commissioner David Stern, whose league had glamour to spare just a year ago (page 30), trying to convince a group of reporters that the term Uglyball wasn't going to become a part of the NBA's lexicon? And that wasn't quintessential New Yorker Spike Lee in a cowboy hat, Texas two-steppin' around a Houston ranch, was it?
You can stop rubbing your eyes. It all happened last week as the Rockets took a 2-1 lead in a best-of-seven series that had everything except the one feature almost everyone anticipated: a battle for the ages between the two dominant centers, Olajuwon and the Knicks' Patrick Ewing. The two big men had given the usual disclaimers before the series—it's not Ewing versus Olajuwon, it's the Knicks versus the Rockets, they insisted—and it turns out we should have believed them. Although both had their moments, they spent much of their time as supporting players, while their teammates took turns as scene-stealers.
"A series always has lots of subplots," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich after the Rockets' 93-89 Game 3 victory on Sunday night. "It's not that Hakeem and Patrick haven't been a major part of the story; it's just that they haven't been the whole story."
The whole story has had several twists, and most of them have involved resiliency. Game 1, an 85-78 Houston victory, was notable for the atrocious shooting performance by both teams, especially New York (34.1%). But the Knicks came back to make 52.2% of their field goal attempts in a 91-83 Game 2 win that featured a sloppy and tentative effort from the Houston backcourt.
Those two games proved that when either team's guards aren't effective from the outside, the result is, as Dennis Hopper's demented referee says in the shoe commercial, "Bad things, man. Bad things." However, rookie guard Sam Cassell helped the Rocket backcourt atone for its Game 2 difficulties with 15 points in Game 3, including a three-pointer that put Houston ahead to stay.
Neither Olajuwon nor Ewing made as many as half his shots in any of the first three games, with Ewing shooting 26 of 74 (35.1%, down from 47.4% in the first three rounds of the playoffs) and Olajuwon 28 of 63 (44.4%, down from 52.7%). Through Game 3 the confrontation was a virtual draw. Although Olajuwon had the edge in scoring (24.7 points per game to 19.0), Ewing got the nod in rebounding (11.7 boards per game to 9.3) and blocked shots (5.0 to 4.3), and he had been more of a factor in the fourth quarters.
While Olajuwon caused most of Ewing's shooting problems, the Knicks sent a squadron of defenders at Olajuwon, the most effective of whom was Anthony Mason, their muscular, 6'7", 250-pound forward. Mason has a rèsumè that reads like a soldier of fortune's, and a mentality to match. "Have gun, will travel, baby," he says. "I'll take anybody they ask me to—guard, forward, center—and try to lock 'em up. Olajuwon's a great player, but it doesn't matter who I guard. I've played in Turkey, Austria, Venezuela, the CBA, the USBL, West 4th Street Park. I had to travel a long way. It keeps you hungry. You know that you never want to go back."
There's one other place Mason has been—limbo. That's where he was after New York coach Pat Riley suspended him for the last three games of the regular season for insubordination. The same feisty, rebellious temperament that helped Mason reach the NBA sometimes gets him into hot water with his disciplinarian coach. "There wasn't any one thing or any one specific comment," Riley says. "When it comes to these kinds of things, it's usually cumulative."
The trouble began when Riley kept Mason on the bench for the second half of an 87-84 loss to Atlanta on April 19. Riley gave Charles Smith most of the minutes at small forward to get an idea of how Smith's surgically repaired knee would hold up in the postseason. Mason told the press about his displeasure at sitting, indirectly insulting Smith in the process, and Riley came down hard. Riley says he waited until "one minute before three o'clock," on April 25—the deadline for setting the playoff rosters—before finally making the decision to reinstate Mason for the postseason.
Olajuwon no doubt wishes Riley had let the deadline pass. Although Mason has a body that looks as if it should be blindsiding quarterbacks, he has remarkably nimble feet. They were made even quicker by his stint in Venezuela, where, he says, hand checking is not tolerated, which is probably beyond the imagination of most NBA fans. "Your entire defense depended on proper positioning, fundamental footwork," he says. "After that South American stuff, D in the NBA is a snap."
When he wasn't fronting him and denying him entry passes, Mason used his bulk to push Olajuwon farther away from the basket than he likes to go to get the ball. Then he all but climbed into Olajuwon's jersey when Hakeem the Dream tried to go to his lethal turnaround jumper, constantly closing the space between them to keep Olajuwon from bringing the ball up into shooting position. Eventually Olajuwon stopped challenging him offensively, passing up shots that he usually takes. "Basically, I just try to keep a body on him, wear him out," said Mason. The strategy worked especially well in Game 2, in which Mason was largely responsible for Olajuwon's scoring only four fourth-quarter points.
By rotating defenders against Olajuwon—forwards Smith and Charles Oakley also spelled Ewing at times—Riley was tacitly admitting what everyone who had watched the two regular-season meetings between the two 7-footers knew: asking Ewing to handle Olajuwon one-on-one for an entire game would be disastrous for New York. Such a concession would have been a blow to the ego of many stars, but not to Ewing's. "I'm for doing whatever needs to be done to win," he said. "This isn't the playground. I'm not trying to prove I'm as good as Hakeem. I'm trying to win a championship."
Relieved of the responsibility of guarding Olajuwon full-time, Ewing patrolled the lane like a sentinel, rebounding and blocking shots the way the Georgetown Ewing did a decade ago. Perhaps the most important of the 15 shots he swatted away in the first three games of the series was a rejection of an Olajuwon shot with slightly more than two minutes remaining in Game 2.
In fact, that game echoed the George-town-Houston NCAA championship game of 1984 in which Olajuwon had more points (15 to 10), but Ewing had more help. After that game, in which the Hoyas defeated the Cougars 84-75, Olajuwon said, "They play team ball the way it is supposed to be played. We play selfish. I was open and my teammates said they missed me. But how many times can they miss me?"
Olajuwon is more diplomatic now, but his feelings after Game 2 were similar to the ones he expressed on that day 10 years ago. When asked about his Rocket teammates' failure to get him the ball down the stretch, a frustrated Olajuwon would say only, "I don't want to discuss it. I might be misunderstood." Still, his silence was easy to interpret.
The 91 points for the Knicks seemed a veritable offensive explosion after the cold-shooting unpleasantness of Game 1. In the fourth quarter of the opener, the Rockets missed 11 of 13 shots and scored only 13 points but still held off the Knicks, who misfired on 18 of their last 24 field goal attempts and scored but 15 fourth-quarter points. Uglyball seems to have become the term of choice to describe this kind of bump-and-hold, shoot-and-clank style of play, and Stern found himself in a pack of reporters before Game 2, assuring them that it's not a plague that has infected the entire NBA. "The league has always had a variety of styles," he said. "In terms of low scoring, there's nothing that's causing any panic at this point."
Stern was much calmer about the poorly played Game 1 than Knick guard John Starks was. One day after attending the funeral of his uncle in Oklahoma, Starks missed 15 of 18 shots and was so distraught afterward that he sat in front of his locker with his head in his hands for 20 minutes, declining to speak with the press. Starks was much better in Game 2, scoring 19 points and making 3 of 4 attempts from beyond the three-point arc.
Maybe he was cheered up by the unlikely sight of Lee in a cowboy hat at a barbecue and rodeo hosted by the Knicks at a Houston ranch on the off day between Games 1 and 2. After being the target of fans' wrath in Indianapolis because of his taunting match with the Pacers' Reggie Miller during the New York-Indiana conference finals, Lee was a model of good behavior during the Knicks' stay in Houston. In fact, he may be more popular in the Lone Star State than in Madison Square Garden. When his likeness appeared on the overhead screen during Game 3, he received more boos than cheers from Knick fans who think he provided the spark with which Miller burned the Knicks two weeks ago.
Lee was in such a friendly mood in Houston that he even asked for Tomjanovich's autograph the day before Game 2. A surprised Rudy T hesitated for a moment before signing, but he had far more difficult decisions to make the next night, particularly in the fourth quarter, when his Rockets fell short in their comeback attempt. With point guard Kenny Smith having been ineffective, Tomjanovich played Cassell, who's out of Florida State, along with little-used fourth-year forward Matt Bullard.
Bullard has shown a light touch in a daily feature he is writing during the playoffs for the Houston Chronicle. This day's edition was about reserve Rocket center Earl Cureton, who last played in the Finals in 1983, with the Philadelphia 76ers. Wrote Bullard, "When Earl was in the Finals the first time, it wasn't Spike Lee sitting in the front row. It was Malcolm X." But Bullard's shooting touch wasn't so deft; he missed six of seven shots. Cassell had bigger headaches, shooting 1 for 7 in the fourth quarter and, more important, failing to get the ball to Olajuwon.
Houston guard Vernon Maxwell, one of Cassell's closest friends, correctly predicted that Cassell would rebound from his poor showing. "He's Smilin' Sam," Maxwell said after Game 2. "He's the kind of guy who can miss eight shots in a row and still be just as confident that the ninth one is going in. You can't keep Sam Cassell down. He'll always come back to get you."
Cassell got New York in Game 3. The Knicks, who seem to bide their time in Madison Square Garden until the fourth quarter, erased a 16-point deficit to take an 88-86 lead, but with 32.6 seconds to go Cassell calmly fired in a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the lead back to Houston. He then made four free throws to secure the victory over the stunned Knicks, who, especially in the playoff's, have come to regard the final period as their birthright.
"He's not a rookie; I don't know if he's ever been a rookie," said Houston guard Mario Elie after the game. "You don't see nervousness in him. He plays every game as if he's down at the park."
Cassell is brash and confident, but he knows that assuming a rookie's proper modesty is sometimes the right thing to do. He made sure to credit Olajuwon for the kick-out pass that set up his three-pointer, and when he saw that the cluster of reporters around him was blocking teammate Robert Horry's path to his locker, he quickly called a halt to the postgame interviews.
Cassell, Maxwell and Starks all grabbed the spotlight at various times, but New York's Derek Harper was the best guard on cither team by Game 3's end. Harper scored 18 and 21 points, respectively, in Games 2 and 3, and on defense he continued his mastery over Kenny Smith that goes back to Harper's days with the Dallas Mavericks. With Harper putting the clamps on, Smith totaled only 15 points in the first three games.
None of that was enough to hold off the Rockets in Game 3, in which the Knicks lost their last chance when Ewing was called for an illegal pick on Maxwell with 23.7 seconds left. Afterward, the murmurs heard in the crowd and in the New York locker room were that a foul like that shouldn't be called with the game on the line. Somewhere the Chicago Bulls—losers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Knicks on a late, questionable call—are surely smiling.
By Sunday night the Rockets had reason to smile as well, but only slightly. After all, the next two games, on Wednesday and Friday, would be in New York (Games 6 and 7, if necessary, would be played in Houston Sunday and next Wednesday). "All we really know is that both teams can win on the other team's court," said forward Otis Thorpe. "Nobody has reason to feel overconfident, and nobody has reason to feel desperate."
Everyone, however, had reason to feel anticipation, because neither Ewing nor Olajuwon had put together a stellar effort yet. Despite all the fine performances from the supporting cast, there was the feeling that a champion wouldn't be crowned until one of the two leading men came up with a showstopper.