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Anthony Cotton
April 13, 1981
There are no NBA champs now that the defending titlist Lakers were stunningly upset in the first round of the playoffs by Houston
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April 13, 1981

The Title Is Up For Grabs

There are no NBA champs now that the defending titlist Lakers were stunningly upset in the first round of the playoffs by Houston

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The Rockets' win in Los Angeles even piqued the interest of folks in Houston. Now that the team had attracted national attention with a stunning upset on national TV, the Rockets, generally looked down upon as poor cousins to the Oilers and Astros, suddenly became the city's darlings. By noon Friday 16,121 tickets had been sold to that night's game at The Summit, insuring the largest single-game crowd in the franchise's 14-year history. But total NBA sophistication had yet to reach Houston. An hour before game time scalpers were only asking $25 for $13 seats, a markup that's chicken feed in L.A., while inside The Summit a sign taped on a wall read, "Moses puts Karem in the shade."

But such gaucheries mattered little to the Rockets' personable and ebullient boy owner, Gavin Maloof, 24, who exclaimed before the game, "If we take 'em tonight it will be the biggest thing to ever happen HISTORY!!!"

Alas, history was put on hold for a while. Westhead had saved his most important ploy until just before game time, when his sixth man, Michael Cooper, was introduced as a starter instead of Chones. With Cooper at guard and Johnson moved to forward in the Lakers' "greyhound lineup," the pace quickened at both ends of the floor. Harris reacted by putting Malone on Cooper defensively, but that worked to the Lakers' advantage. As Cooper scurried about outside with Moses in tow, L.A. jumped to an early 18-5 lead.

Yet the Rockets hung tough and cut the Laker lead to 96-93 with 5:06 to play. The Rockets' fans could be excused if they thought that things were then well in hand. Fourteen times this season Houston won games after being tied or trailing at the start of the fourth quarter, a feat equaled only by Boston. As the staggering Lakers called time out, the crowd in The Summit stood en masse, cheering for the 15th and creating such a din that Harris had to yell in his players' ears when he gave instructions.

That noise doubled when Johnson fouled out with 2:53 to play and the Rockets down three, 100-97. It took the crestfallen Magic, who had a career-high 18 rebounds, more than a minute to leave the court, and when he did, he stood with his hands on his hips while his teammates huddled to his right. Across from Johnson, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss also stood dejectedly, hands on hips. No wonder. Buss figured that at $125,000 per home-game gate plus other playoff income the Lakers could lose close to $3 million if they were eliminated early. Or, as Laker publicist Bob Steiner said, "With what we'd lose, we could pay Kareem's salary."

But as Westhead had said before the game, only lesser teams see the writing on the wall. Nixon, who scored 21 points with 11 assists, made a three-point play after that time-out, and the Lakers held on for a 111-106 win.

That put the odds in the Lakers' favor for Sunday's game in L.A. Before the Rockets' Wednesday night win, Houston's record at The Forum had been an abysmal 5-29. Even more important, Los Angeles was relaxed after Friday's back-to-the-wall victory. "Now we can play in our comfortable rhythm." Westhead said. "When it's do or die, you're in a need rhythm, and that's not our best."

Both teams had trouble sustaining any kind of rhythm during the final game, mainly because of crashing bodies—53 fouls were called—and poor shooting, 39% for Los Angeles, only 34% for the Rockets. Johnson had a particularly rough time, going two for 14 from the field and six for 11 from the line.

With the score deadlocked at 85-85 after seven ties and 16 lead changes, Johnson, lacking his magic touch—or for that matter any touch—missed the first two free throws in a three-to-make-two situation. After Johnson hit the third to put L.A. up 86-85, Houston called, time out. The idea was for Murphy to put up the shot and for Malone to crash the boards if there was a rebound, but when Calvin received the ball from Dunleavy two Lakers pounced on him, so he whipped a pass back to Dunleavy, who didn't hesitate in putting in the shot.

The Lakers still had one more opportunity to stay alive, and they decided to rely on Magic. Johnson brought the ball up the length of the court against Tom Henderson, spinning into the lane for a driving jumper that became an air ball. "It was just one of those things," Magic said afterward. "I could say I got hit on the drive. I did get hit on the elbow when I shot, but I held back and didn't follow through."

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