It is not inconceivable that the Houston Rockets could keep James Worthy and his Los Angeles Laker teammates from a rematch with the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals. The Rockets will probably beat the Lakers on the boards, as they did last Saturday (41-35) in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. They will show the Lakers more than they want to see of Akeem Olajuwon, whose opening-game line read 28 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Houston will also throw several different offensive ploys at the Lakers, starting 6'8" Robert Reid at point guard and moving another inside player, Rodney McCray, to point forward from time to time. And they will give the Lakers a look at a younger, rawer version of L.A.'s own nettlesome sixth man, Michael Cooper, in the person of Mitchell Wiggins, who scored 24 points and played enthusiastic defense on Saturday.
But put it all together and the Rockets are still only the second-best team in the West.
The Lakers won the opener going away, and they will win the series, probably in six games. It won't be easy, certainly not as easy as it was in Game 1 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had his way inside with 31 points, and Magic Johnson had his way outside with 26 and 18 assists. Sure, L.A. will have its shaky moments, just as it did in the Western semis, where it took six games to dispatch the Dallas Mavericks. And look for the Rockets to marshal all their considerable weapons—the open-court brilliance of off-guard Lewis Lloyd, the textbook outside shooting of Reid, the sudden impact of the unselfish McCray, and, of course, the imposing skyline of Olajuwon and 7'4" Ralph Sampson—to produce one blowout at the Summit in Houston. But it won't be enough.
Something happens to Abdul-Jabbar when he strolls onto the court against the Rockets. Perhaps he feels compelled to prove that, at 39, he is still king and Houston's big men still supplicants, just as he did while averaging 33 points in five regular-season games against the Rockets. Or maybe it's something that doesn't happen. Against Houston he doesn't get double-teamed much, he doesn't get muscled out of skyhook range, he doesn't get fronted and he doesn't get physically abused when he takes his shot. Sampson guarded him most of the way on Saturday and allowed Abdul-Jabbar to get the ball close to the basket, where he is unstoppable.
This is one frisky Abdul-Jabbar on the loose right now. With the Lakers in control late in the sixth and final game against the Mavericks in Reunion Arena last Thursday night, he walked to the first row of the uproarious Dallas fans and cupped one hand to his ear, as if to say, "I can't hear you now." (He paid for it later when someone dumped two cups of beer on his head as the Lakers left the floor.)
Magic is at his best against Houston, too. The Rockets use as many as five different players at the point—six, if Sampson's forays outside are counted—but the Lakers need only one. "The difference wasn't Kareem's 31 points," said Fitch after Saturday's game. "It was that we didn't have a guy out there to take charge, like Magic."
In simplest terms, it is Kareem and Magic who show the Rockets what they are—the Young and the Restless of the NBA, not the Old and the Established. Houston's time will come, but it is not now, not while Kareem has a skyhook left in him and Magic can still find a yellow brick road lo the basket. As the seconds ticked away in Game 1, the Forum fans began a familiar chant: "We Want Boston!" How terribly premature. And how inevitable.