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The hard, black surface of the mountain confronted Jack Sikma. Every time he turned around last week, Sikma found himself in the shadow of Mount Moses (elev: real tall). Sikma plays center for the Seattle SuperSonics. Moses Malone, the NBA's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, plays center for the Houston Rockets. If Seattle was to win their best-of-three miniseries, Sikma would have to move the mountain.
Until last Sunday, however, what Sikma hadn't considered was that the mountain might have to come to him. "You fall into a rut worrying about stopping Moses," Sikma said after scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds on Sunday, "and until today that took me out of what I wanted to do. Finally I realized that I can do a few things, too, so let them play me." The Rockets were never able to do that—among other things—very effectively. So the Sonics routed them 104-83 and won the series 2-1 and a place in a Western Conference semifinal series against San Antonio.
Sunday's game was quite a turnaround from Game 2, in which the Rockets had trampled Seattle 91-70 in Houston. "Maybe we'd have been better off if we had just beaten them by two points on a last-second shot in that game," said white-haired Houston Coach Del Harris. "Those guys looked mad."
Seattle forced Houston to take bad shots throughout Game 3 by starting its defense out near center court, a tactic that Sonics Coach Lenny Wilkens had felt might bring Houston's big men a few feet farther from the basket. As soon as the Rockets began misfiring, Wilkens brought 7'2", 275-pound James Donaldson off the bench to play alongside Sikma, who is 6'11" and 250 pounds, and Forward Lonnie Shelton, who goes 6'8", 250. That is Seattle's Winnebago Wall, certainly the biggest front line in the NBA, and one that Wilkens had already used effectively in the first two games of the series against the Rockets, who were last season's NBA finalists.
"With the big lineup," Donaldson said, "we lay a lot of muscle on people," which is what the Sonics laid on Houston, stretching a seven-point advantage at the start of the second quarter to 18 just before the half. Harris countered with a forward wall of Malone (6'11", 235 pounds), Elvin Hayes (6'9", 235) and Billy Paultz (6'11", 240). There were so many Winnebagos camped under the boards that Seattle Center Coliseum looked like an R.V. park.
The Winnebago Wall is just the sort of chip Wilkens loves to play in big games. He is an astute tactician who often isn't given his due because he has never been completely comfortable with the media. "Lenny likes to make the wheels spin," a rival coach says admiringly of his bench savvy. Last week Wilkens spun the wheels on his Winnebago, ran the Rockets down from behind with a sleek little sports car named Gus Williams, then rolled past Houston on a streetcar named desire.
Seattle had been itching to run against the Rockets all week, but on Sunday the Sonics so overwhelmed Houston on the boards—a commanding 52-36 edge in rebounds, beating the league's best offensive rebounding team at its own game 20-15—that the Sonics didn't have to fast-break. "They didn't run against us," said Houston Forward Robert Reid, who shot a wretched 2 for 9. "They just came down and hammered at us toe-to-toe." Malone had 24 points and 13 rebounds, but "he had a tough time getting the ball where he wanted it," Sikma said, "so he couldn't climb down our throats with it."
The Rockets hadn't shot well for the series (39.5%), and when they shot 30.9% in the first half Sunday, they were never able to recover.
If the first two games proved anything, it was that the Sonics were more dependent upon Williams' one-man fast breaks than they wanted to be. Seattle had built a 52-30 regular-season record—good for second behind the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division—on the rubble of teams that failed to protect their flanks against Williams, who was seventh in the league in steals with 2.15 a game. So rather than try to match muscle with Malone and Hayes underneath, the Sonics waited for the Rockets to trip themselves up. "Against a team like Houston the tendency is to want to go strength against strength," Seattle Assistant Coach Les Habegger said. "We could try to counter their halfcourt game with our big lineup, but we think it's to our advantage to make them adjust to us. We'd like to pressure them and make them throw the ball away before they set up."
But in the first two games it was Seattle that had to do the adjusting. Houston had decisively controlled the tempo in six of the eight quarters leading up to Sunday's showdown and had held Williams to 8-for-29 shooting (he was 11 for 18 in the second half of Game 1). Seattle didn't score a single fast-break basket during the first half of Game 1 and mounted only a minimal running attack in the second game on Friday. "Fast breaks are not something that happen by design," Harris said as the Rockets flew back to Seattle on Saturday. "They're the result of an opponent making a mistake."