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Up in the Air
Jackie MacMullan
May 06, 1996
Both teams struggled as the harrumphing Lakers tried to put an early end to the hobbling Rockets' hopes of three-peating
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May 06, 1996

Up In The Air

Both teams struggled as the harrumphing Lakers tried to put an early end to the hobbling Rockets' hopes of three-peating

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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.

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