They've come in waves, a gold and purple Pacific of defenders—Kurt Rambis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Lucas, Mitch Kupchak. All have tried to stop the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon, and all have failed. They've fronted him and backed him, elbowed him out of position, yanked him to the floor, sent him to the free-throw line and moved their quick-handed guards, Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, down low to double-and triple-team him. Better they should have tried to tie his shoelaces together.
Nothing has worked against Olajuwon, a mixture of brute and ballet dancer, a center so swift and so strong he can kill you softly or violently.
Defend the NBA title? Puh-leese. The next words out of Los Angeles might well be no mas. "I know Kareem won't give up," said Olajuwon, "but I don't think they can win three in a row."
Not if Akeem were to continue at his latest implausible pace, anyway. He scored 40 and 35 points last weekend at the Summit in Houston as the young Rockets, having suddenly changed from diapers to combat fatigues, beat the Lakers twice to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Next up was a game in the Forum on Wednesday, but even there the Lakers were not safe. Houston beat L.A. 112-102 in Game 2 on Tuesday of last week in that very arena, a result that heralded the changing of the guard in the West that the Rockets obviously had in mind.
"Eventually, you knew it was going to happen," said Laker sixth man Michael Cooper. "You knew they were going to be a team to reckon with. It's just happening a little bit sooner than we thought."
Indeed, the Rockets are currently in the third year of management's "five-year plan." It began in 1983 when owner Charles F. Thomas, a.k.a. King Coin Flip, called "heads" and earned the right to draft Ralph Sampson. Two years ago Portland called "tails," up came heads, and Olajuwon went to the Rockets. And now there was Houston, only one win away from sending its Twin Towers against the imposing Boston skyline in the finals. Give Sampson his due on this point—he has long pooh-poohed the front-office's plan as overly cautious. "I didn't want to hear about five-year plans then and I don't want to hear about them now," Sampson said last week, possibly because he, more than anyone, realized the full potential of Olajuwon.
Now the Lakers know it, too. Magic: "In terms of raw athletic ability, Akeem is the best I've ever seen." Lucas: "The rebirth of a bigger Moses Malone." Kupchak: "I can compare him to, maybe, Alvin Robertson in terms of being able to do everything. That tells you something, since Robertson is a guard. I've never seen anyone that strong, that quick, that relentless and who also happens to be seven-feet tall."
Actually, he's more like 6'11", but who's measuring? The point is that no one on the Lakers, long of tooth and short of rebound (the Rockets dominated the boards 186-145 in the first four games), has been able to cut him down to size. For all the success the Laker big people have had, coach Pat Riley might just as well send out his all-purpose defensive octopus, the long-armed 6'7" Cooper, to guard Olajuwon.
Cooper almost jumped off the locker room bench when that idea was proposed after Houston's 105-95 victory on Sunday. "Shoot, I'd love to guard him," said Cooper. "I'm not saying I'd stop him, but I know this—we're playing him wrong. You can't get your body on him because he just feels where you are and moves away from you. You've got to let him catch it and then go to work on him."
That same theory has been advanced by 76er center Malone, Olajuwon's longtime off-season foe at the Fonde Recreation Center in Houston. Olajuwon says he wouldn't know how to tell an opponent to guard him, though he claims that as L.A. changes defenders, he adjusts his game accordingly. "I know all their games," he says. And how does Lucas play you, Akeem? "Very physical," says Olajuwon. "He tries to push me out." Abdul-Jabbar? "He also tries to push me out. He is very strong." Kupchak? "Very physical." Boy, that's some book Akeem has on the Laker defense, eh? Everybody does the same thing.
But Olajuwon doesn't have to be analytical—his instincts and his wonderful body do everything that needs to get done. And that's not another way of saying he's dumb. Quite the opposite, in fact. "Did you know that Akeem speaks six languages?" Magic was asked before last Sunday's game. He smiled slightly and said, "He only needs one—'Give me the ball.' "
Clearly, though, there is something happening with the Rockets besides Olajuwon. But it sure wasn't Sampson on Sunday, when, plagued by foul trouble, he scored only 12 points and grabbed just eight rebounds. And it wasn't off-guard Lewis Lloyd (1 of 8 from the floor, zero rebounds) who played as poorly as anyone could play and still show vital signs. Yet the Rockets prevailed, holding Los Angeles to 16 points in the fourth period, much as they had held them to 18 in the final period of Friday's 117-109 win. How? And why?
Well, Robert Reid's experience and gamesmanship are paying off. He and backup point guard Allen Leavell are the only holdovers from the last Rocket team that got this far in the playoffs (in 1980-81, when Houston lost to the Celtics in the championship showdown). Rodney McCray has warmed to his role as the man who does a little bit of everything (he's averaging 7.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 10.5 points and only one turnover in the Laker series). And Mitchell Wiggins and Jim Petersen, each of whom took the same number of shots as Sampson did on Sunday (eight), have given the Rockets a lift off the bench. Petersen, in fact, was the leading re-bounder in the game, grabbing 13 in 26 minutes, as he bodied Abdul-Jabbar away from the boards. Hey, this guy can play. And it wasn't too long ago that the Phoenix stat crew credited Hank McDowell for two of Petersen's missed free throws because it couldn't tell the two apart.
Speaking of benches, remember the Lakers and that vaunted SWAT squad they had in reserve that was supposed to be better than many NBA teams? Well, it now consists of Cooper and a bit player from Iceland named Petur Gudmundsson. Lucas, the Enforcer, had the null set in points and rebounds on Sunday, and if he enforced anything against Olajuwon, it was the idea that his enforcing days are over. Kupchak got his first minutes in the series on Sunday, and had two points and two rebounds. And the rest of the Laker bench (Mike McGee, Larry Spriggs and rookie A.C. Green) might as well have been sharing a seat in the stands with Jack Nicholson—they hadn't played.
If the Rockets were, as Reid says, "a team that's starting to know each other," then the Lakers were a team that had lost confidence in its bench, which last year helped bring them the title. But then, hasn't every defending NBA champion since the 1968-69 Celtics failed to repeat?
Laker coach Pat Riley has a theory that offensive rebounds and blocked shots are the biggest plays in a game. "They say, 'I'm coming into your backyard and shoving the ball down your throat,' " says Riley. And that is exactly how Houston began to change the tenor of the series in Game 2, right in L.A.'s backyard. The Rockets grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and blocked 12 shots at the Forum—including five of Abdul-Jabbar's, one, by Olajuwon, a rare rejection of a skyhook—to even the series at 1-1. "They blocked so many shots," said Abdul-Jabbar, "I thought they dropped someone from the roof."
Game 3 in the Summit was a war from start to finish. But the most telling play occurred away from the battlefield in the paint beneath the Houston basket, late in the third period with Los Angeles leading 87-84. Magic had the ball and was about to start a fast break by passing to Cooper. Akeem stood nearby, posing, in Magic's mind, no danger. But just as Magic made the pass—"One I make all the time," he would say later—Olajuwon reached out and stole the ball, took a dribble and hit a short jumper, forcing Magic to foul him on the way up. Three-point play. Tie game. And yet another indication that the Lakers were dealing with some larger-than-life being.
Leading 91-90 after three periods, Los Angeles seemed to age perceptibly down the stretch. Kareem would finish with 33 points, but had none after his two free throws with 5:29 left in the game. Wiggins, fresh after playing only 10 minutes to that point, kept his chin in Magic's chest throughout the fourth period, hand-checking him, moving him from side to side and delaying his penetration down the middle. "He didn't stop Magic," Rocket coach Bill Fitch said, "but he didn't let him become a dominant force like he is so often. You have to play a humble game against Magic, nothing fancy."
Humble aptly describes the Lakers at crunch time, too—five different Rockets scored during an 11-2 spurt from 4:59 to 1:20 that sealed a 117-109 victory for Houston. Olajuwon's 40 points came with numbing, quarter-by-quarter consistency—10, seven, 12 and 11.
If Game 3 told the Lakers how well Houston's starting five is capable of playing—Lloyd had 26 points and seven offensive rebounds, point forwards Reid and McCray combined for 22 assists—then Game 4 delivered the message even more clearly. On Sunday the steadiness of Reid and McCray compensated for MIAs Sampson and Lloyd. Strangely, the Lakers weren't giving Reid, hardly the most sure-handed of dribblers, the kind of in-your-face, full-court pressure that forced him into mistakes in the semifinal series against Denver. Reid was having very little difficulty getting Houston set up in its ram-it-down-to-Akeem half-court offense, and he was hitting the outside jumper when it was there. He finished with 23 points, including 10 of 12 Rocket points during a three-minute stretch in the third period that helped erase a 53-50 L.A. halftime lead.
McCray had 12 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and one turnover in 48 minutes, a terrific line for a point forward. "Rodney has been the X factor of the series," said Riley. "Rodney has held them together. It seems like he never shoots the ball unless it's the proper time."
The same cannot be said of Sampson, who still launches too many outside jumpers and spends too much time juking for position away from the basket. But don't think for a minute that things would be going this well for the Rockets if Sampson were not on the floor. To put it in the simplest terms, he occupies someone, and that someone is the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar.
"Where they have Ralph down at the four-man [power forward], we have Kurt," said Kupchak. "It's got to make a difference. It hasn't been a glaring problem during the season because we've been able to compensate with [James] Worthy. But it's glaring against these guys." Kurt? Kurt who? Ah, Kurt Rambis. In the two games in Houston, Rambis was 1 for 1 from the field, with five rebounds. Clark Kent had entered a telephone booth and emerged as Lois Lane.
The other thing that Sampson accomplished, of course, was to keep Olajuwon away from Abdul-Jabbar on defense. As a result the Dream had only three personal fouls on Sunday. Yet, by sliding off the man he was guarding (Rambis or Lucas) and sneaking over from the weak side, Olajuwon could still harass Kareem. He had four blocks Sunday, two of them on Abdul-Jabbar. "He [Olajuwon] used to guard me during the season, and that didn't work out too well for them," said Abdul-Jabbar. "Now all he does is sit underneath and block shots. It makes it tough."
Tough isn't the word. The word may be impossible. For the Lakers to come back against the Rockets, someone besides Abdul-Jabbar, Magic and Worthy (who had 26 points despite a strained neck on Sunday) had to emerge quickly. Houston is confident and tough, so tough that the soft-spoken Reid, an avid follower of the Pentecostal religion, was talking in Gothic images. "The Lakers are thinking that we've cut them deep, very, very deep," said Reid. "There's lots of blood, and now we want to go for the kill."
And everyone in Laker Land knew which Rocket was holding the knife. They just didn't know how to make him put it down.