Led as they are by a pair of stars nicknamed the Dream and the Glide, the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets ought to be floating effortlessly through the playoffs, but they're doing nothing of the sort. Already, the Rockets have had a bumpy ride, encountering injuries, arguments, a defection and the Utah Jazz and surviving only by sheer force of will. Houston is still alive to defend its championship because Hakeem Olajuwon's and Clyde Drexler's nicknames may capture the stylish grace of their games but don't begin to do justice to their toughness. There is determination in Hakeem the Dream and grit in Clyde the Glide.
That was never more evident than in the way the Rockets battled back from from the playoff precipice last week and instead pushed the Jazz over the cliff by winning their first-round Western Conference series after trailing two games to one. Olajuwon scored 33 points and Drexler 31 in the deciding game, a 95-91 win on Sunday at Salt Lake City's Delta Center. Those performances were almost as spectacular as their accomplishments during Game 4 in Houston last Friday, when Drexler had 41 and Olajuwon 40 in the 123-106 victory that allowed the Rockets to escape elimination.
They were masterly efforts that set up a rematch of last year's second-round series between the Rockets and the Phoenix Suns, whose loquacious All-Star forward, Charles Barkley, had gone on record as saying he couldn't wait for the chance to renew acquaintances with the Rockets. Houston guard Kenny Smith sent out a warning to Barkley after the Rockets had dispatched the Jazz: "Be careful what you ask for."
The Rockets couldn't have asked for more from Olajuwon and Drexler, who made sure that Houston prevailed despite the apparently permanent leave granted to disgruntled guard Vernon Maxwell after Game 1 and the loss of power forward Carl Herrera to a shoulder dislocation (a reinjury) suffered in Game 4. Olajuwon merely displayed the brilliance—he averaged 35.0 points and 8.6 rebounds for the series—to which his teammates have become accustomed. But newcomer Drexler's performance was especially gratifying because it provided the added firepower (25.2-point average for the series) the Rockets had in mind in February when they traded power forward Otis Thorpe (along with forward Marcelo Nicola and a conditional first-round draft choice) to the Portland Trail Blazers for Drexler and forward Tracy Murray. The consensus was that along with Thorpe, the Rockets had lost their chance to repeat as champions, since his departure left them with a serious weakness on the backboards. As good as Olajuwon is, he can't grab all the rebounds.
But for one series, at least, Drexler justified the deal. "Does this settle the trade controversy?" Olajuwon asked after Game 5. "We traded for an established player. We got professionalism, leadership, scoring. All of those qualities showed today."
When Drexler joined the Rockets, he deferred to his former University of Houston teammate Olajuwon both as a scorer and a leader. But he has gradually exerted more influence on his new team in both areas. He was the Rocket who provided the calming influence when the Jazz took a 12-point third-quarter lead in Game 5. "I could see some panic setting in there," he said. "I think the feeling is finally settling in that when it gets close, we now have two guys to go to."
What Drexler and his teammates couldn't have known was how much the Jazz would help them in their comeback. After taking an 82-75 lead in the fourth quarter, Utah seemed to forget that it had its own pair of All-Stars, forward Karl Malone and guard John Stockton. Forward David Benoit missed three consecutive three-pointers, and Malone went almost four minutes without a shot as the Jazz endured seven straight possessions without scoring.
After leading the Jazz to a team-record 60 regular-season wins, the 33-year-old Stockton and the 31-year-old Malone appeared to have their best chance to finally reach the NBA Finals for the first time in their 10 years together. Instead, they were sent home after the first round for the sixth time in their 10 playoff appearances during that decade. Olajuwon was gracious—"It's just too bad that two teams capable of winning the championship had to meet in the first round," he said—but Utah has been a playoff failure too often to attribute its demise merely to a bad draw. The Jazz must now ponder which is the bigger mystery: that a team with two future Hall of Fame players has never had even a serious whiff of the championship in 10 seasons or that an organization would abide that much postseason frustration without changing its basic, two-man approach.
Stockton, who had a subpar game with 12 points and only five assists, wasn't very forthcoming about these or other thoughts after Game 5, but Malone (35 points) was in surprisingly good spirits. "Despite what you may think, this does not stack up as one of my alltime low moments," the Mailman said. Maybe that's because the Jazz have had so many of them this time of year.
The Rockets would have a hard time choosing the lowest moment of their difficult season, in which they won 47 regular-season games, 11 fewer than in 1993-94. In the Utah series alone they had to deal with losing two key members of their rotation in Maxwell and Herrera. During the regular season Maxwell hadn't taken the loss of his shooting-guard job to Drexler gracefully. Mad Max made it clear that he didn't expect to be a Rocket next season and acted as if he didn't want to be, refusing to reenter a March game against the Philadelphia 76ers until coach Rudy Tomjanovich shouted his name four times.