As in those years, there will be other confrontations to be monitored between the Rockets and the Knicks. Will Houston guards Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith get as many open jump shots against New York's stingy defense as they did against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals? How long will it be before rugged Knick forwards Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason take it upon themselves to send spindly Houston forward Robert Horry (page 30) crashing to the floor when he tries to go to the basket for one of his head-wagging dunks?
But it is the battle in the pivot that will probably swing the series. That's bad news for the Knicks, if recent history is any indication. Olajuwon, the best player in the league, is at the top of his game, and recently he has owned Ewing. In their two regular-season matchups—both decisive Houston victories—Olajuwon averaged 33.0 points and 16.5 rebounds to Ewing's 12.0 and 9.5. The Rockets' 94-85 win in New York in December, in which Olajuwon scored 37 points and held Ewing to 12 (on 4-of-20 shooting), was one of the low points of the season for the Knicks. "He causes me problems with his quickness," Ewing admits in an understatement.
Though he may be a tad shorter, the agile Olajuwon is clearly the better shot blocker. At 255 pounds, he is actually listed as 15 pounds heavier than Ewing, which hardly seems possible. Ewing definitely has more bulk, and he will have to use it in an attempt to wear Olajuwon down. "Not many people are going to stop Olajuwon," says Georgetown coach John Thompson, who has frequently been at courtside for Knick games during this postseason, trying to shepherd his former star to the championship. "The best bet against him is probably to make him work on defense and try to create foul problems for him. If you let him stand around on defense, he'll have more energy to hurt you on offense. So Patrick will need to take it at him aggressively."
The problem for New York is that Olajuwon, with his quickness, is more likely to get Ewing in foul trouble. One key to the matchup will probably be the Knicks' effectiveness should they choose to double-team Olajuwon. New York coach Pat Riley doesn't like to double, but defending against Olajuwon may call for desperate measures.
The Rockets and the Knicks both depended on their centers to carry them to the Finals, and both men bore the burden in ways that symbolized the essential difference in their styles: Olajuwon glided through his opponents with hardly a misstep, while Ewing muscled his way through his foes, stumbling often but never falling. Olajuwon was uniformly brilliant throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs, averaging 29.8 points and 11.9 rebounds. In the Western Conference finals he sliced through Utah with his characteristic dexterity and finesse to lead the Rockets to a relatively easy 4-1 victory in the best-of-seven series.
It has been a decidedly rougher road for Ewing, who lacks Olajuwon's grace and artistry but, like his Houston rival, possesses an indomitable will. Ewing, who averaged 23.1 points and 11.4 rebounds in the first three rounds, has had rocky times in the postseason, including a one-point performance and a two-rebound game—both career lows—in losses to Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. But his relentlessness, his "heart of a warrior," as Riley calls it, eventually ensured triumph. In Game 7 of the second round against Chicago, after going scoreless in the first half, Ewing came back with 18 points and 11 rebounds in the second to lead New York to an 87-77 win. And in Game 7 against the Pacers on Sunday, he had 24 points and 22 rebounds and was dominant down the stretch in a 94-90 Knick victory. His dunk on a rebound of a John Starks miss with 26.9 seconds left provided the winning points.
"Patrick is like me," says Olajuwon. "We're aggressive, and we play to win. He gets criticized, and it's not fair, because he is a winner. That is his character."
It was character that enabled the Knicks to narrowly avoid an upset at the hands of the pesky Pacers in a series that was a yawner until Spike Lee and New York tabloid headline writers got into the act. After four games so ugly that the tapes of them should be destroyed for the good of the sport, Indiana vs. New York finally hit its stride in Game 5, the fourth quarter of which featured one of the great playoff performances in league history, by 6'7" Indiana guard Reggie Miller. In that period Miller scorched the net from every angle as he scored 25 points, including five three-pointers, to carry the Pacers to a 93-86 victory, which gave them a 3-2 lead in the series. While Miller was torching the Knicks, he was taunting film director and die-hard Knick fan Lee, who was sitting in his customary courtside seat and returning the verbal fire.
Lee was castigated by New York radio talk-show callers and by the tabloids, who claimed that Lee had angered Miller so much that Miller took it out on the Knicks. Lee responded by correctly pointing out that he wasn't one of the Knick guards who had failed so miserably to get the ball to Ewing down the stretch. But by that time New Yorkers had been thrown into such a panic by the loss that many—including headline writers who blistered the Knicks with GAG CITY and CHOKERS in huge type—were no longer interested in rational thought. The Knicks may be ham-handed at times, but chokers they are not. "We may not be the prettiest team around or the most skilled," said Riley, "but the one thing I can't understand is the questioning of our heart. This team is all about heart."
Pushed to the precipice, the Knicks refused to fall off. Starks called a team meeting in Ewing's Indianapolis hotel room the day before Game 6. The New Yorkers watched their wretched fourth quarter of Game 5, and they responded the next night with their best performance of the postseason, a 98-91 victory. That set the stage for the Game 7 win in New York in which the Knicks trailed by as many as 12 points in the third quarter before Ewing led them back. When it was over, Ewing climbed on top of the scorer's table, threw his arms into the air and let out a mighty roar of delight. "Patrick tends to hide his feelings, so I was happy to see that," said Thompson. "When he got up on that table, I was hoping he'd jump up and touch the scoreboard."