May 06, 1996
May 06, 1996

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May 6, 1996

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Last Saturday, moments after losing Game 2 of their first-round
Western Conference playoff series 104-94 to the Los Angeles
Lakers, the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets were in the
visitors' locker room at the Forum, with half of their body
parts packed in ice. Guard Sam Cassell, his surgically repaired
right elbow heavily wrapped in an ice-filled bandage, could have
easily been mistaken for a middle reliever. Swingman Mario Elie
was being chilled from his right shoulder to his fingertips and
from his left shin to his foot, as if he'd been sideswiped on an
L.A. freeway. Guard Clyde Drexler, his right knee and right
ankle padded with mounds of cubes, explained that his limited
mobility during the game had been caused not by pain in his
knee, on which he had arthroscopic surgery in late February, but
in his ankle, which he had rolled two days earlier, in Game 1.
Drexler's ankle had swollen so much during pregame warmups that
he had upgraded his sneakers from lowtop to midcuts for extra
support. "It only hurts when I take off--and when I land," he
said calmly.

This is an article from the May 6, 1996 issue Original Layout

Across from Drexler's locker, center Hakeem Olajuwon limped to
his chair, favoring the swollen knees that had kept him out of
10 games during the final four weeks of the regular season. Even
while surveying his teammates' ice-pack-covered limbs and
joints, he declared that it was the Lakers who should be
worried. "I'm encouraged," said Olajuwon, when asked about the
Game 2 loss, which evened the series at one game apiece as the
action shifted to the Summit in Houston for Games 3 and 4 on
Tuesday and Thursday nights. "We gave them this game. The Lakers
have not beaten us yet."

Indeed, the Rockets departed battered yet buoyant from their
weekend in L.A. After holding the Lakers to a season-worst 34.9%
shooting in an 87-83 Game 1 victory--a performance that so
frustrated Los Angeles guard Magic Johnson that he openly
questioned the offensive role assigned to him by coach Del
Harris--Houston appeared poised to steal Game 2, until Olajuwon
picked up his fifth and sixth fouls in a 19-second span in the
fourth quarter. He was left to watch the final 10:05 from the

At the time of Olajuwon's disqualification, the Rockets were
down by only three points, 74-71. But with Houston's lethal
weapon out of the game, Magic and guard Eddie Jones, who
finished with 20 points and a career-high 11 rebounds, energized
the Lakers. L.A. sent the Rockets to their first loss in their
last nine road playoff games. "This was huge," said Lakers guard
Anthony Peeler, who contributed nine fourth-quarter points in
Game 2. "We knew if we went into Houston down 0-2, there was no
way we'd come out alive."

Ever since last year, when they entered the playoffs as the
sixth seed in the West yet went on to successfully defend their
title, the Rockets have had a postseason mystique. During the
recently concluded regular season, injuries ravaged Houston's
lineup, leading to a 48-34 record and the No. 5 playoff seeding,
but nobody underestimated the Rockets' postseason chances. The
biggest reasons were the savvy of coach Rudy Tomjanovich and the
talent and composure of Olajuwon.

But in Game 2 both men proved they're only human. When Olajuwon
bumped Jones to pick up his fifth foul, Tomjanovich did not
react quickly enough to hustle substitute Sam Mack into the
game. "He was at the scorer's table," said Tomjanovich
afterward. "We couldn't get him in. But I wasn't worried. We've
been in that situation a zillion times, and the sixth foul has
never happened."

In fact, Olajuwon had not fouled out of a playoff game since
1987. Shouldn't a veteran of his stature have known enough to
take himself out? "Oh, sure," agreed Tomjanovich. "He should
have run right off the floor." Instead, Olajuwon turned and ran
down the court. When Peeler drove into the teeth of Houston's
defense, Olajuwon aggressively moved to swat away his shot and
was whistled for a foul.

Olajuwon later conceded that the final two calls against him
were right. But the real issue, he insisted, was the correctness
of earlier calls. Olajuwon was particularly irked by his fourth
foul, which he claimed should have been given to teammate Chucky
Brown but was whistled on him when Los Angeles center Vlade
Divac pointed to the Dream's number 34 jersey. "The referees are
supposed to govern the game," Olajuwon said. "If they are really
sincere that those were real calls, then I'll have to respect
that. I'll leave that to a higher authority."

For a while this season Harris felt that his team was benefiting
from divine intervention--specifically the return of the
36-year-old Johnson following more than four years of
retirement. After rejoining the Lakers in January, Johnson
sparked them to a 29-11 record and the No. 4 seeding in the
West. But in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, L.A. had come
unstrung. High-scoring forward Cedric Ceballos went AWOL for
four days. Clutch-shooting guard Nick Van Exel knocked referee
Ron Garretson into the scorer's table and was suspended for the
last seven regular-season games. Magic himself did the
bump-and-whine with official Scott Foster and earned a
suspension that forced him to sit out three of the final four

These disruptions seemed to leave the Lakers in disarray in Game
1. Los Angeles coughed the ball up 22 times and went scoreless
for nearly eight minutes in the decisive final quarter. The
Lakers chose to subject Olajuwon to single coverage, by Divac,
and although the Dream poured in 33 points, the L.A. strategy
allowed the Lakers to guard the two best Houston backcourtmen,
Cassell and Drexler, more closely on the perimeter. Cassell and
Drexler shot only 9 of 26 between them.

But their woes paled in comparison to those of Los Angeles
guards Van Exel and Sedale Threatt, who were 1 of 17 from the
floor. Another key Laker, starting forward Elden Campbell, got
into early foul trouble and played but 26 minutes, delivering a
mere seven points and eight rebounds. And while Johnson's
numbers were more than adequate (20 points, 13 rebounds), he was
upset afterward that Harris had kept urging him to stay on the
perimeter instead of setting up in the post. "I didn't know I
wasn't going to be the focal point of the offense," said a
subdued Magic. "The Rockets knew what they were going to do to
win the game. And we were like, 'What are we going to do?'"

In Game 2, Magic took charge. In the third quarter, with L.A.
trailing 65-60, Jones grabbed a Peeler air ball and then hit an
acrobatic layup--getting Olajuwon to commit that fourth foul in
the process. Magic's eyes widened as the Dream went to the
bench. Johnson now assumed his position in the post and
instructed his teammates to give him the ball. Los Angeles
completed a 14-2 run and never looked back. "I told them, 'I'm
taking over. Get out of the way,'" Johnson would say later,
after finishing with 26 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The Lakers had won despite subpar performances--again--by
Campbell, who fouled out with eight points, and Van Exel, who
scored 15 points but was only 5 of 14 from the floor.

The Rockets returned home hoping the three-day layoff between
games would lighten the load on the ice machine. In truth,
though, they had more pressing worries. The Lakers were
outrebounding them by an average of almost 14 per game. And
forward Robert Horry, a playoff killer the last two seasons, had
shot a combined 3 of 18 from the floor in Games 1 and 2. As for
the Lakers, they knew they needed more production from Van Exel
and Campbell to combat their creaky yet cunning opponent. Long
before the defending NBA champions packed up the ice packs, the
Lakers were expecting a cool reception in Houston.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH As their teams traded wins, Olajuwon (34) groused about the refs, while Magic griped about the Lakers' lack of direction [Hakeem Olajuwon and Magic Johnson in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In Game 1, Drexler touched up Divac and the Lakers for 21 points but also sprained his right ankle. [Clyde Drexler, Vlade Divac and Magic Johnson in game]COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON In his return from a suspension Van Exel looked smooth in the opener but shot a dismal 1 of 11. [Nick Van Exel]