It is time to give them their due, time to bow deeply before them with our bauds, outstretched in a we-are-not-worthy salute. Let us promise here and now that we will not doubt them again. We will not be fooled next year if they muddle through the regular season. Our faith will not be shaken if they are beset by injuries or suspensions, or make seemingly dubious trades. We will not be fazed if they walk right to the brink of elimination in the early rounds of the playoffs. It will not matter if they are down by 20 points in the fourth quarter, trailing three games to none. On the road. We know them now, and we will expect them to win, because that is what the Houston Rockets do. They win.
The Rockets were cautious after they had taken a 3-0 lead over the Orlando Magic in the best-of-seven NBA Finals with a 106-103 win on Sunday. "Don't start planning the parade yet," said forward Mario Elie, cognizant of Wednesday's Game 4 in Houston. "It's too early." But in reality, perhaps we are late. Maybe we should have been able to tell before this—if not after their first championship last season, then certainly somewhere during this stirring postseason run toward their second—that the Rockets are one of those special teams that are at their best when the stakes are highest.
They eliminated the three clubs with the best regular-season records in the league—the San Antonio Spurs, the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns—on their way to the Finals and were poised to add the fourth-best team to their list of victims by disposing of the demoralized Magic, which seemed inevitable at the close of business Sunday night. The chances of Orlando recovering to win four straight games seemed roughly the same as the odds of Magic center Shaquille O'Neal forsaking rap music for a career in opera.
While the Magic players were not surrendering, it did seem that they were beginning to realize the true nature of their opponents. By now it should be obvious that the Rockets are more than just an ordinary cast of characters clinging to the cape of their superstar, center Hakeem Olajuwon, who played with his customary brilliance in the first three games of the Finals.
It should be clear by now that Houston point guards Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell may look overmatched at times but one or the other of them will rise up to hit a three-point shot just when the Rockets are most desperate for it. It should come as no surprise anymore that Houston small forward Robert Horry transformed himself into a power forward simply because there was no other choice and that he has not only survived at that position but has thrived there. Horry was a revelation in the first three games of the Finals, giving Houston outside shooting, rebounding and remarkable defense, highlighted by a seven-steal performance in Game 2 in which he stepped in front of so many Orlando passes that it looked as if the Magic were running plays for him. There should be no further need to marvel at how Elie, a CBA refugee, gives the Rockets a hard-as-nails attitude combined with a pillow-soft jump shot. "You look at that team on paper, and you might wonder how it wins," says Orlando point guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, "but that team has as much heart as anybody."
And not just the players have labored in the shadow of the Dream. Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich tends to be overlooked as well, because he does not present himself as a brilliant tactician, a master motivator or an inspirational locker room orator. But has Tomjanovich made a misstep in the last two years? He controls the Smith-Cassell tandem with the dexterity of a master puppeteer. He took the slender Horry and journeymen Chucky Brown and Pete Chilcutt and stitched them into a reasonable facsimile of traded power forward Otis Thorpe. And he defused a potentially divisive situation by granting disgruntled guard Vernon Maxwell an indefinite leave of absence after only one postseason game.
Tomjanovich also has a remarkable ability to gauge the Rockets' state of mind, which he demonstrated once again in a key moment after Houston's 120-118 overtime victory in Game 1 in Orlando. The Rockets were at their morning shoot-around the day of Game 2, and Tomjanovich sensed something amiss in their attitude. "Happy feet," he called it. He could see in the way his players carried themselves that they were still celebrating Game 1 instead of preparing for Game 2. So Tomjanovich gathered the Rockets around for a bit of a tongue-lashing. "It was one of his more forceful talks of the season," Cassell said. "And it was just the thing we needed to get our heads out of the clouds."
But Tomjanovich's most important accomplishment of the season was working Clyde Drexler into the Houston lineup after he came from the Portland Trail Blazers in February in exchange for the estimable Thorpe, a trade that many of the Rockets, mindful of the departed Thorpe's prodigious rebounding, criticized openly. Drexler quickly won over his new teammates by supplying badly needed offense, especially during a 15-day stretch in March and April when Olajuwon was sidelined by anemia. "Dream went down, and Clyde all of a sudden started going for 30, 40 points a game," says Elie. "Everyone was like, O.K., we're convinced."
In addition to offense, Drexler brought hunger to Houston. If there was any complacency among the Rockets after they won the championship last year, bringing in a 32-year-old star who had never won a championship was the perfect antidote. Drexler is a master of the plain vanilla quote, even when talking about his desire to win a title, but his passion for a championship ring has been evident in the way he has played, especially in the Finals. Drexler was possessed in Game 3, with 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He repeatedly took the ball on length-of-the-court rushes, one of which resulted in an emphatic dunk with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter that extended Houston's lead to four points and nearly brought the house down at the Summit.
"When Clyde grabs the rebound, puts his head down and takes off, he's like a thoroughbred, and he just makes you run with him," says Elie. "It's like he's 10 years younger, flying by young guys like they're standing still. Clyde wants a ring. He wants a ring bad."