But Olajuwon doesn't have to be analytical—his instincts and his wonderful body do everything that needs to get done. And that's not another way of saying he's dumb. Quite the opposite, in fact. "Did you know that Akeem speaks six languages?" Magic was asked before last Sunday's game. He smiled slightly and said, "He only needs one—'Give me the ball.' "
Clearly, though, there is something happening with the Rockets besides Olajuwon. But it sure wasn't Sampson on Sunday, when, plagued by foul trouble, he scored only 12 points and grabbed just eight rebounds. And it wasn't off-guard Lewis Lloyd (1 of 8 from the floor, zero rebounds) who played as poorly as anyone could play and still show vital signs. Yet the Rockets prevailed, holding Los Angeles to 16 points in the fourth period, much as they had held them to 18 in the final period of Friday's 117-109 win. How? And why?
Well, Robert Reid's experience and gamesmanship are paying off. He and backup point guard Allen Leavell are the only holdovers from the last Rocket team that got this far in the playoffs (in 1980-81, when Houston lost to the Celtics in the championship showdown). Rodney McCray has warmed to his role as the man who does a little bit of everything (he's averaging 7.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 10.5 points and only one turnover in the Laker series). And Mitchell Wiggins and Jim Petersen, each of whom took the same number of shots as Sampson did on Sunday (eight), have given the Rockets a lift off the bench. Petersen, in fact, was the leading re-bounder in the game, grabbing 13 in 26 minutes, as he bodied Abdul-Jabbar away from the boards. Hey, this guy can play. And it wasn't too long ago that the Phoenix stat crew credited Hank McDowell for two of Petersen's missed free throws because it couldn't tell the two apart.
Speaking of benches, remember the Lakers and that vaunted SWAT squad they had in reserve that was supposed to be better than many NBA teams? Well, it now consists of Cooper and a bit player from Iceland named Petur Gudmundsson. Lucas, the Enforcer, had the null set in points and rebounds on Sunday, and if he enforced anything against Olajuwon, it was the idea that his enforcing days are over. Kupchak got his first minutes in the series on Sunday, and had two points and two rebounds. And the rest of the Laker bench ( Mike McGee, Larry Spriggs and rookie A.C. Green) might as well have been sharing a seat in the stands with Jack Nicholson—they hadn't played.
If the Rockets were, as Reid says, "a team that's starting to know each other," then the Lakers were a team that had lost confidence in its bench, which last year helped bring them the title. But then, hasn't every defending NBA champion since the 1968-69 Celtics failed to repeat?
Laker coach Pat Riley has a theory that offensive rebounds and blocked shots are the biggest plays in a game. "They say, 'I'm coming into your backyard and shoving the ball down your throat,' " says Riley. And that is exactly how Houston began to change the tenor of the series in Game 2, right in L.A.'s backyard. The Rockets grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and blocked 12 shots at the Forum—including five of Abdul-Jabbar's, one, by Olajuwon, a rare rejection of a skyhook—to even the series at 1-1. "They blocked so many shots," said Abdul-Jabbar, "I thought they dropped someone from the roof."
Game 3 in the Summit was a war from start to finish. But the most telling play occurred away from the battlefield in the paint beneath the Houston basket, late in the third period with Los Angeles leading 87-84. Magic had the ball and was about to start a fast break by passing to Cooper. Akeem stood nearby, posing, in Magic's mind, no danger. But just as Magic made the pass—"One I make all the time," he would say later—Olajuwon reached out and stole the ball, took a dribble and hit a short jumper, forcing Magic to foul him on the way up. Three-point play. Tie game. And yet another indication that the Lakers were dealing with some larger-than-life being.
Leading 91-90 after three periods, Los Angeles seemed to age perceptibly down the stretch. Kareem would finish with 33 points, but had none after his two free throws with 5:29 left in the game. Wiggins, fresh after playing only 10 minutes to that point, kept his chin in Magic's chest throughout the fourth period, hand-checking him, moving him from side to side and delaying his penetration down the middle. "He didn't stop Magic," Rocket coach Bill Fitch said, "but he didn't let him become a dominant force like he is so often. You have to play a humble game against Magic, nothing fancy."
Humble aptly describes the Lakers at crunch time, too—five different Rockets scored during an 11-2 spurt from 4:59 to 1:20 that sealed a 117-109 victory for Houston. Olajuwon's 40 points came with numbing, quarter-by-quarter consistency—10, seven, 12 and 11.
If Game 3 told the Lakers how well Houston's starting five is capable of playing—Lloyd had 26 points and seven offensive rebounds, point forwards Reid and McCray combined for 22 assists—then Game 4 delivered the message even more clearly. On Sunday the steadiness of Reid and McCray compensated for MIAs Sampson and Lloyd. Strangely, the Lakers weren't giving Reid, hardly the most sure-handed of dribblers, the kind of in-your-face, full-court pressure that forced him into mistakes in the semifinal series against Denver. Reid was having very little difficulty getting Houston set up in its ram-it-down-to-Akeem half-court offense, and he was hitting the outside jumper when it was there. He finished with 23 points, including 10 of 12 Rocket points during a three-minute stretch in the third period that helped erase a 53-50 L.A. halftime lead.