When he wasn't fronting him and denying him entry passes, Mason used his bulk to push Olajuwon farther away from the basket than he likes to go to get the ball. Then he all but climbed into Olajuwon's jersey when Hakeem the Dream tried to go to his lethal turnaround jumper, constantly closing the space between them to keep Olajuwon from bringing the ball up into shooting position. Eventually Olajuwon stopped challenging him offensively, passing up shots that he usually takes. "Basically, I just try to keep a body on him, wear him out," said Mason. The strategy worked especially well in Game 2, in which Mason was largely responsible for Olajuwon's scoring only four fourth-quarter points.
By rotating defenders against Olajuwon—forwards Smith and Charles Oakley also spelled Ewing at times—Riley was tacitly admitting what everyone who had watched the two regular-season meetings between the two 7-footers knew: asking Ewing to handle Olajuwon one-on-one for an entire game would be disastrous for New York. Such a concession would have been a blow to the ego of many stars, but not to Ewing's. "I'm for doing whatever needs to be done to win," he said. "This isn't the playground. I'm not trying to prove I'm as good as Hakeem. I'm trying to win a championship."
Relieved of the responsibility of guarding Olajuwon full-time, Ewing patrolled the lane like a sentinel, rebounding and blocking shots the way the Georgetown Ewing did a decade ago. Perhaps the most important of the 15 shots he swatted away in the first three games of the series was a rejection of an Olajuwon shot with slightly more than two minutes remaining in Game 2.
In fact, that game echoed the George-town-Houston NCAA championship game of 1984 in which Olajuwon had more points (15 to 10), but Ewing had more help. After that game, in which the Hoyas defeated the Cougars 84-75, Olajuwon said, "They play team ball the way it is supposed to be played. We play selfish. I was open and my teammates said they missed me. But how many times can they miss me?"
Olajuwon is more diplomatic now, but his feelings after Game 2 were similar to the ones he expressed on that day 10 years ago. When asked about his Rocket teammates' failure to get him the ball down the stretch, a frustrated Olajuwon would say only, "I don't want to discuss it. I might be misunderstood." Still, his silence was easy to interpret.
The 91 points for the Knicks seemed a veritable offensive explosion after the cold-shooting unpleasantness of Game 1. In the fourth quarter of the opener, the Rockets missed 11 of 13 shots and scored only 13 points but still held off the Knicks, who misfired on 18 of their last 24 field goal attempts and scored but 15 fourth-quarter points. Uglyball seems to have become the term of choice to describe this kind of bump-and-hold, shoot-and-clank style of play, and Stern found himself in a pack of reporters before Game 2, assuring them that it's not a plague that has infected the entire NBA. "The league has always had a variety of styles," he said. "In terms of low scoring, there's nothing that's causing any panic at this point."
Stern was much calmer about the poorly played Game 1 than Knick guard John Starks was. One day after attending the funeral of his uncle in Oklahoma, Starks missed 15 of 18 shots and was so distraught afterward that he sat in front of his locker with his head in his hands for 20 minutes, declining to speak with the press. Starks was much better in Game 2, scoring 19 points and making 3 of 4 attempts from beyond the three-point arc.
Maybe he was cheered up by the unlikely sight of Lee in a cowboy hat at a barbecue and rodeo hosted by the Knicks at a Houston ranch on the off day between Games 1 and 2. After being the target of fans' wrath in Indianapolis because of his taunting match with the Pacers' Reggie Miller during the New York-Indiana conference finals, Lee was a model of good behavior during the Knicks' stay in Houston. In fact, he may be more popular in the Lone Star State than in Madison Square Garden. When his likeness appeared on the overhead screen during Game 3, he received more boos than cheers from Knick fans who think he provided the spark with which Miller burned the Knicks two weeks ago.
Lee was in such a friendly mood in Houston that he even asked for Tomjanovich's autograph the day before Game 2. A surprised Rudy T hesitated for a moment before signing, but he had far more difficult decisions to make the next night, particularly in the fourth quarter, when his Rockets fell short in their comeback attempt. With point guard Kenny Smith having been ineffective, Tomjanovich played Cassell, who's out of Florida State, along with little-used fourth-year forward Matt Bullard.
Bullard has shown a light touch in a daily feature he is writing during the playoffs for the Houston Chronicle. This day's edition was about reserve Rocket center Earl Cureton, who last played in the Finals in 1983, with the Philadelphia 76ers. Wrote Bullard, "When Earl was in the Finals the first time, it wasn't Spike Lee sitting in the front row. It was Malcolm X." But Bullard's shooting touch wasn't so deft; he missed six of seven shots. Cassell had bigger headaches, shooting 1 for 7 in the fourth quarter and, more important, failing to get the ball to Olajuwon.