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Original Issue

Down To the Wire

The Rockets squeaked by the Knicks in Houston to force a decisive seventh game

The regulars at the La Paris barbershop on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn didn't know what to think. Most of them are New York Knick fans, but they also have a special fondness for the Houston Rockets' starting point guard, Kenny Smith, a transplanted New Yorker whose parents, William and Ann, own the store next door, Candles and Flowers. You can imagine the conflicting emotions that filled the La Paris during the NBA Finals, especially after Smith was instrumental in the Rockets' winning the sixth game 86-84 and tying the best-of-seven series 3-3 at the close of business Sunday night. Smith, who had been having a nightmarish series until Game 6, hit a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter, and afterward he could imagine the Monday-morning conversation at the barbershop. "Some of them will be saying, isn't that great about Smitty's son?' " he said. "The others will be saying, 'That damn Kenny Smith.' "

They weren't the only ones who couldn't decide just how they felt about this series, which was headed for a seventh and deciding game on Wednesday. The Finals were at once ragged and thrilling, the kind of series that causes viewers to cover their eyes with one hand while biting their nails on the other. But many observers seemed so concerned with grading the quality of play that they barely noticed that there hasn't been a Finals in recent memory that featured as many edge-of-the-seat conclusions. "The games might not get high marks for artistic impression, but you can't complain about the intensity of the competition," New York coach Pat Riley said. "Every game has been a two-or three-point game late in the fourth quarter."

And just when you thought you had separated the heroes from the goats, they would switch roles. One minute Knick guard Derek Harper was closing in on the Finals' MVP award with sterling performances—21 points in New York's 93-89 Game 3 loss and 21 and 14 in its victories in Games 4 (91-82) and 5 (91-84), respectively—the next he was shooting 2 for 10 in the sixth game. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon was unstoppable with his turnaround fallaway jumpers during some stretches but appeared tentative and reluctant to shoot during others. Olajuwon's opposite number, Patrick Ewing, missed 40 of 57 shots in Games 3 and 4 but came through with 25 points, 12 rebounds and a Finals-record-tying eight blocks in Game 5.

For some reason Mujibur and Sirajul, the Broadway souvenir-store salesmen from Bangladesh whom David Letterman has made into minor celebrities, were in attendance at Game 6 in Houston and visited the Rocket locker room after the game. Mujibur's (or was it Sirajul's?) summation of what he had seen—"Back and forth, back and forth"—was as good a description of these Finals as any.

Smith, of course, was more back than forth. His struggles against the Knick backcourt in general and Harper in particular were becoming almost painful to watch. He averaged 4.2 points and 3.8 assists during the first five games and seemed completely flustered, even dribbling the ball out of bounds against only token pressure in Game 5. Things had gotten so bad that Smith's teammates gave up trying to put a positive spin on his performance. "Kenny's been too nice," said guard Vernon Maxwell, who didn't exactly set the world on fire by averaging 12.1 points on 34% shooting over the first six games. "He's a nice guy, but I want to see him play mean and nasty, just once, for me."

It was all particularly galling for Smith, who was born in Queens and played at Archbishop Molloy High School in that New York City borough, because most of his problems were witnessed firsthand at Madison Square Garden by his friends and family. "The seats the Knicks gave them weren't exactly the best ones in the house," he said. Maybe that was a good thing, because his play in New York was best viewed from a distance.

That's why Rocket rookie Sam Cassell was at point guard for the lion's share of the minutes during the series' fourth quarters—until Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich played a hunch and turned to Smith in Game 6. But even Tomjanovich's reasoning indicated how poorly Smith had been performing: "Sam was tired, and I felt confident going with Kenny because tonight he wasn't playing, you know, the way he had been playing the last few games."

Smith rewarded Tomjanovich's confidence by drilling a three-pointer that gave the Rockets an 84-77 lead with 3:18 left in the game. The shot slowed the Knicks but didn't bury them. New York on a fourth-quarter comeback is like one of those lumbering horror-movie monsters: No matter how many times you hit it, it just keeps coming. The Rockets didn't stop the Knicks for good until just before the buzzer, when Olajuwon blocked guard John Starks's three-point attempt, which would have given New York the game, the series and the NBA championship. Afterward the Knicks lamented another missed opportunity, which had come when they were trailing 78-77: an overthrown length-of-the-court pass by forward Charles Oakley to an open Starks.

As for Smith, his statistics for the night—seven points, one assist—didn't look as if they belonged to a hero, but he clearly felt like one. When he was brought into the area reserved for postgame interviews of the key players of each game, he looked around and said, "I didn't know this room existed."

There were several omens suggesting that Smith and the Rockets were doomed in Game 6. The Knicks had good karma emanating from the full-page newspaper photo, taped to Harper's locker room stall, of New York Ranger captain Mark Messier holding the newly won Stanley Cup. And if the Houston players weren't tight, the Rocket mascot, Turbo, certainly was. During timeouts he missed three trampoline-aided dunks that he usually makes in his sleep.

But the Houston bench had no such problems, especially Venezuelan forward Carl Herrera, with whom the Knicks would be wise to acquaint themselves. "Herrell...what's his name?" said Oakley. "He hurt us a couple of games in this series." The Knicks might as well call him Charles Barkley, because that's whom they make him look like. Herrera sank all six of his shots from the floor and by himself outscored the New York bench 12-7 in Game 6. He had been effective during brief appearances earlier in the series, so Tomjanovich, playing another hunch, extended him to 20 minutes in Game 6.

While the Rockets were getting important contributions from their bench, the role of the Knick reserves was shrinking. Riley turned New York into essentially a six-man team, with only forward Anthony Mason doing anything more than giving the five starters a chance to quickly catch their breath. Hubert Davis, usually a part of the regular guard rotation, was ineffective in the first three games of the series, and Riley kept him on the bench in Game 6, sticking almost exclusively with Harper (42 minutes) and Starks (46).

But then, Starks's play demanded that he stay on the floor, especially in the fourth quarter, when he scored 16 of the Knicks' 22 points. (He also had 11 in the fourth quarters of both Games 4 and 5.) "That guy is amazing," said Tomjanovich. "We watched Reggie Miller in their last series [against the Indiana Pacers] with an amazingly quick release, and Starks does the same thing. We were in a defense where we were never leaving him, and still he found the tiniest crack and got his shots off. You have to give him credit."

Everyone gave him credit—except Starks himself. He was disconsolate after Game 6 because of two key fourth-quarter plays. The first, coming when New York trailed 84-82, was a pass to Ewing that Olajuwon stole. Starks came off a Ewing screen and tried to flip the ball back to him, but Olajuwon anticipated the pass. It was an indication of how familiar the Knicks and the Rockets were with each other after six games. "I knew what he was going to do," Olajuwon said. "At this point there are no more surprises." The other play that irked Starks was Olajuwon's block of Starks's three-point attempt at the buzzer, which was more the result of Olajuwon's wondrous athletic skills than of any New York breakdown.

Still, Starks sat in front of his stall after the game, his head in his hands. It was almost an instant replay of his behavior after the Knicks' 85-78 Game 1 loss, when he had a good deal more to be upset about: a 3-for-18 shooting performance. In Game 6 Starks was the only reason New York still had a chance to win at the end. But his depression after the game might have been a good sign for the Knicks, because after he recovered from his Game 1 blues, Starks scored 19 points in New York's 91-83 victory in Game 2.

The Knicks, however, weren't inclined to look too far into the past, because there was a scary statistic waiting for them: Dating back to 1982, when the Philadelphia 76ers won at Boston in the Eastern finals, the home team had prevailed in 19 consecutive seventh games. "I know what history has to say about seventh games," Riley said, "but maybe this is the way we have to get to the promised land."

But the Rockets went home Sunday night thinking of their home floor at the Summit as the promised land. The prospect of playing Game 7 there was comforting to them, especially to Smith, who welcomed the chance to make further amends for his earlier difficulties. Like other Rockets and Knicks, Smith knew that everything that had gone before in these Finals—the debates over the strength of the league and the gracefulness of the play—was about to recede far into the background. "Game 7," Smith said, "is the only thing anybody will remember."



At crunch time in Game 5, a supercharged Starks (19 points) drew a foul from Cassell.



In Game 6 Smith, bumped by Mason, came back to nail a clutch three-pointer.



Harper, here driving past Olajuwon, had his ups and downs in the Finals.