It is time to give them their due, time to bow deeply before them with our hands outstretched in a we-are-not-worthy salute. Let us promise here and now that we will not doubt them again. We will not be fooled next year if they muddle through the regular season. Our faith will not be shaken if they are beset by injuries or suspensions, or make seemingly dubious trades. We will not be fazed if they walk right to the brink of elimination in the early rounds of the playoffs. It will not matter if they are down by 20 points in the fourth quarter, trailing three games to none. On the road. We know them now, and we will expect them to win, because that is what the Houston Rockets do. They win.
The Rockets were cautious after they had taken a 3-0 lead over the Orlando Magic in the best-of-seven NBA Finals with a 106-103 win on Sunday. ``Don't start planning the parade yet,'' said forward Mario Elie, cognizant of Wednesday's Game 4 in Houston. ``It's too early.'' But in reality, perhaps we are late. Maybe we should have been able to tell before this -- if not after their first championship last season, then certainly somewhere during this stirring postseason run toward their second -- that the Rockets are one of those special teams that are at their best when the stakes are highest.
They eliminated the three clubs with the best regular-season records in the league -- the San Antonio Spurs, the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns -- on their way to the Finals and were poised to add the fourth-best team to their list of victims by disposing of the demoralized Magic, which seemed inevitable at the close of business Sunday night. The chances of Orlando recovering to win four straight games seemed roughly the same as the odds of Magic center Shaquille O'Neal forsaking rap music for a career in opera.
While the Magic players were not surrendering, it did seem that they were beginning to realize the true nature of their opponents. By now it should be obvious that the Rockets are more than just an ordinary cast of characters clinging to the cape of their superstar, center Hakeem Olajuwon, who played with his customary brilliance in the first three games of the Finals.
It should be clear by now that Houston point guards Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell may look overmatched at times but one or the other of them will rise up to hit a three-point shot just when the Rockets are most desperate for it. It should come as no surprise anymore that Houston small forward Robert Horry transformed himself into a power forward simply because there was no other choice and that he has not only survived at that position but has thrived there. Horry was a revelation in the first three games of the Finals, giving Houston outside shooting, rebounding and remarkable defense, highlighted by a seven-steal performance in Game 2 in which he stepped in front of so many Orlando passes that it looked as if the Magic were running plays for him. There should be no further need to marvel at how Elie, a CBA refugee, gives the Rockets a hard-as-nails attitude combined with a pillow-soft jump shot. ``You look at that team on paper, and you might wonder how it wins,'' says Orlando point guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, ``but that team has as much heart as anybody.''
And not just the players have labored in the shadow of the Dream. Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich tends to be overlooked as well, because he does not present himself as a brilliant tactician, a master motivator or an inspirational locker room orator. But has Tomjanovich made a misstep in the last two years? He controls the Smith-Cassell tandem with the dexterity of a master puppeteer. He took the slender Horry and journeymen Chucky Brown and Pete Chilcutt and stitched them into a reasonable facsimile of traded power forward Otis Thorpe. And he defused a potentially divisive situation by granting disgruntled guard Vernon Maxwell an indefinite leave of absence after only one postseason game.
Tomjanovich also has a remarkable ability to gauge the Rockets' state of mind, which he demonstrated once again in a key moment after Houston's 120-118 overtime victory in Game 1 in Orlando. The Rockets were at their morning shootaround the day of Game 2, and Tomjanovich sensed something amiss in their attitude. ``Happy feet,'' he called it. He could see in the way his players carried themselves that they were still celebrating Game 1 instead of preparing for Game 2. So Tomjanovich gathered the Rockets around for a bit of a tongue-lashing. ``It was one of his more forceful talks of the season,'' Cassell said. ``And it was just the thing we needed to get our heads out of the clouds.''
But Tomjanovich's most important accomplishment of the season was working Clyde Drexler into the Houston lineup after he came from the Portland Trail Blazers in February in exchange for the estimable Thorpe, a trade that many of the Rockets, mindful of the departed Thorpe's prodigious rebounding, criticized openly. Drexler quickly won over his new teammates by supplying badly needed offense, especially during a 15-day stretch in March and April when Olajuwon was sidelined by anemia. ``Dream went down, and Clyde all of a sudden started going for 30, 40 points a game,'' says Elie. ``Everyone was like, O.K., we're convinced.''
In addition to offense, Drexler brought hunger to Houston. If there was any complacency among the Rockets after they won the championship last year, bringing in a 32-year-old star who had never won a championship was the perfect antidote. Drexler is a master of the plain vanilla quote, even when talking about his desire to win a title, but his passion for a championship ring has been evident in the way he has played, especially in the Finals. Drexler was possessed in Game 3, with 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He repeatedly took the ball on length-of-the-court rushes, one of which resulted in an emphatic dunk with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter that extended Houston's lead to four points and nearly brought the house down at the Summit.
``When Clyde grabs the rebound, puts his head down and takes off, he's like a thoroughbred, and he just makes you run with him,'' says Elie. ``It's like he's 10 years younger, flying by young guys like they're standing still. Clyde wants a ring. He wants a ring bad.''
That quest took a turn for the better when Drexler had the good fortune to be traded to the Rockets. Horry, on the other hand, was lucky not to be traded away from Houston. A deal last season that would have sent him and since-waived forward Matt Bullard to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott fell through when Elliott failed his physical -- but not before Horry had been issued a uniform by the Pistons. That jersey is now framed in Horry's bedroom as a reminder that the Rockets were willing to trade him because they felt he wasn't aggressive offensively. ``Every time I look at that jersey it tells me, Don't hesitate, take the shot,'' Horry says. He didn't hesitate in Game 3 as he scored 20 points, including a clutch three-pointer that gave Houston a 104-100 lead with 14.1 seconds left.
Horry was open for that shot because the Magic was busy double-teaming Olajuwon. During the first three games, Orlando (like San Antonio before it) never quite got the hang of guarding the Dream. In Game 1, when the Magic doubled him nearly every time he touched the ball, the rest of the Rockets made Orlando pay by burying 14 of their 32 three-point attempts, and somehow Olajuwon still got 31 points and seven assists. In Game 2 Orlando left O'Neal largely on his own against Olajuwon in order to give the other Rockets fewer open jump shots. The Magic held Houston to only five threes, but Olajuwon scored 34 points and Cassell added 31 on a variety of drives and jumpers in a 117-106 Houston win -- the Rockets' seventh straight road victory, a postseason record. ``They're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place,'' Smith said after Game 2. ``If they double Dream, we hurt them with the threes, but if they don't double him, he might go for 50 or 60.''
Olajuwon didn't put up those kinds of numbers, but given his teammates' contributions, he didn't have to. His much-anticipated confrontation with O'Neal lived up to its billing, with both centers playing so well -- Olajuwon had the scoring edge, averaging 32.0 points over the first three games to O'Neal's 29.0, while Shaq had the rebounding advantage, 12.7 to 10.3 -- that they canceled each other out. O'Neal, with the help of his teammates, kept Olajuwon from repeating the kind of transcendent performances he had delivered earlier in the playoffs. Instead of allowing him the long series of fakes and spins that leave defenders looking foolish, the Magic limited Olajuwon to one or two moves before he either shot or passed the ball. The problem was that sometimes one or two moves were all he needed.
While O'Neal was dealing with Olajuwon's grace, the Dream was combating Shaq's power. O'Neal was often able to bull his way so close to the basket that he was impossible to stop once he received the ball. ``Playing Shaq is a serious workout,'' Olajuwon said after Game 2. ``I'm going home and going to bed.''
But as intriguing as the battle of centers was, it was the other matchups that swung the series in Houston's favor. O'Neal and Hardaway had to carry the Magic offensively because forward Dennis Scott's jumper deserted him (he shot .258, including 5 for 23 from three-point range, through the first three games) and guard Nick Anderson's confidence seemed to do the same. Anderson became the series' tragic figure when, with Orlando ahead 110-107 in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 1, he missed four straight free throws, any one of which would have surely sealed the win for the Magic.
Anderson vowed that he would not be affected by the misses -- ``I've seen tragedies,'' he said, alluding to his youth in inner-city Chicago, ``and missing free throws is not a tragedy.'' But in the next two games he looked nothing like the player who had gotten the better of two superstars, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller, in earlier series. In Games 2 and 3 Anderson shot a combined 8 for 27.
``The difference is, we're getting different people helping out Hakeem and Clyde every game,'' Cassell said after Game 3. ``Shaq and Penny are carrying it all alone.''
It wasn't just an accident that the Magic's supporting cast was largely ineffective. The Rockets did a masterly job of taking away the easy baskets that had made the Magic such a potent team most of the season. They limited the alley-oop passes to O'Neal for dunks. For the most part they kept Hardaway from penetrating, and when he tried to post up the smaller Houston point guards, they made sure that he set up a few feet farther from the basket than he would have liked. The open three-pointers that Scott and Anderson so often see before the defense can set up were nonexistent against the Rockets. ``Before you can play defense, you have to get back on defense,'' Tomjanovich says. ``One of the things we preach is taking away a team's transition offense, especially a team as explosive as Orlando.''
Although Olajuwon appeared well on his way to winning his second consecutive Finals MVP award, the story of the series was the emergence of the rest of the Rockets. In the Rockets' victories in Orlando, it was point guard partners Smith and Cassell who played pivotal roles. Their combined heroics were especially important because it was widely suspected that their confrontation with the 6'7" Hardaway, the Magic's first-team All-NBA point guard, would be the biggest mismatch of the series. Hardaway was expected to use his height advantage to shoot over the 6'3" Rocket guards and his quickness to drive around them, and early in Game 1, that was what he did. Hardaway had his way with Smith, scoring 11 points in the first quarter as the Magic built a 15-point lead that grew to 20 in the second period.
But Smith responded with a 20-point second half and finished with seven three-pointers, a Finals record. His last trey, with 1.6 seconds left in regulation, sent the game into overtime, which ended on an Olajuwon tip-in with .3 of a second left. Afterward Cassell was among the first to congratulate Smith, but his compliments came with a warning. ``You can relax [in Game 2],'' he said, ``because I'm giving you the night off.''
``I thought he was joking,'' Smith said after Game 2. ``Turns out he was dead serious.'' Cassell kept Smith on the bench almost the entire second half of Houston's victory by serving as the Orlando rally-killer. Every time the Magic threatened to cut significantly into the Rockets' double-digit lead, Cassell was there with an open-court foray to the basket or a fallaway jumper as the shot clock expired to steal the roar from the Orlando crowd.
Cassell is a brash, talkative 25-year-old who plays with a childlike enthusiasm -- after hitting a jumper in Game 2, he turned and actually skipped for several steps downcourt -- but handles pressure games like a hardened veteran. ``I love the playoffs because they're the money games, they're where you make your name,'' he says. ``You don't have to be 35 years old to figure that out.''
The Rockets love Cassell's youthful energy, but his teammates do sometimes wish he would tone it down a notch off the court. ``Sam's always talking, always,'' says Smith. ``It doesn't matter if it's five in the morning or five in the afternoon. He's the loud guy you don't want to sit next to on the team bus, the guy who makes you put your headphones on and pretend you're sleeping.''
But by the end of Game 3, Cassell wasn't the only one who had a lot to say. All of Houston was talking about the Rockets, and the whole country should have been listening. The Rockets were preparing to take their place in that elite category of champions, the repeat winners. But the one thing they could not do was surprise us anymore, because we knew better. The next time they play an important game, a game they absolutely must have, disregard the matchups, forget about the home court advantage. Just expect the Rockets to win, because that's what they do.