When the Houston Rockets arrived in Manhattan last week, they found more than a hint of hostility in the December air. Having already deemed the rest of the Eastern Conference unworthy of their full contempt, the New York Knicks and their fans needed an outlet for their aggression. So when the undefeated Rockets came strolling into town with a 14-0 record, putting them one victory shy of the NBA record for consecutive wins at the start of a season, all of New York was brimming with serious attitude, particularly the Knicks' two brawny forwards, Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. "This is the wrong place to try to set a record," Mason said. Added Oakley, "They'll feel the pressure of just being in New York. When they come to the Garden, it's like a zoo, so it'll be more pressure because all the animals will be loose."
New York is one of the few places where a player can compare the populace to the denizens of a zoo and mean it as a compliment, which helps explain why the New York-Houston meeting on Thursday was the most eagerly anticipated matchup of the young season, capturing the public's attention as regular-season games rarely do. Sure, eight of the Rockets' wins during the streak had come on the road, but none of them had been in the home of the Eastern Conference's best and certainly most brutal team.
The Knicks, who seem to have set themselves up as defenders of a throne they don't own, had been rooting for the Rockets to remain unbeaten until they reached New York, as if Houston were a Christmas turkey to be fattened up before the kill. And as everyone waited to see just how the Rockets and their wondrous center, Hakeem Olajuwon, would react to the wilting pressure of pure New York bloodlust, Oakley had more words of caution for the visitors. "It may be lopsided," he said two days before the game.
As it turned out the only thing that was lopsided was the Rockets' lead throughout most of the evening. They ended up 94-85 winners in a contest that wasn't nearly that close, to earn a share of the 45-year-old record and leave the Knicks seriously shaken. Houston's remarkable run ended the following night in Atlanta with a 133-111 loss to the Hawks, who know a little something about winning streaks themselves (page 32), but breaking the record had always been a secondary issue for Houston, which was less concerned with history than with the present—and the future. After all, the co-owners of the mark, the 1948-49 Washington Capitols, did not become NBA champs; they lost to the Minneapolis Lakers in the Finals.
By the time the Rockets left Madison Square Garden, they had attained something far more important than a place in the record book. They had firmly established themselves not only among the league's elite teams, but also—O.K., so it's early—as the team to beat. "If we have to come back here in June [for the NBA Finals], and people say we can't win in New York, hey, we've done it," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Meanwhile the Rockets' domination of the swaggering Knicks left the New Yorkers no longer pounding their chests but scratching their heads. The game that was supposed to answer questions about the Rockets ended up revealing more about the Knicks. "They talked it, but we walked it," said Houston guard Vernon Maxwell.
As usual the Rockets fell in step behind Olajuwon, who outscored New York's Patrick Ewing 37-12 and outrebounded him 13-8 in a one-sided confrontation that will surely be remembered by MVP voters. But the aesthetic difference between the two centers was even greater, as Olajuwon displayed a combination of quickness and balletic grace that made Ewing look like a plodder by comparison. Olajuwon doesn't battle Godzilla in sneaker ads as Charles Barkley does or make rap videos like Shaquille O'Neal's or have an alter ego like Larry Johnson's Grandmama, so he will just have to settle for being the best player in basketball.
Still, the days when the Rockets relied solely on Olajuwon to cut and slash his way through double and triple teams are gone. Second-year forward Robert Horry gives Houston a second shot-blocker; and its sometimes maligned backcourt of Maxwell and point guard Kenny Smith—with key contributions from reserves Mario Elie, Scott Brooks and Sam Cassell—has been steady, even dynamic.
"A lot of it has to do with their maturity," Milwaukee Buck coach Mike Dunleavy says of the Rockets' success. "In the past when they got leads, you always felt you could come back on them. This year they're different." They are different largely because of an unrelenting team defense that was giving up a scant 92.1 points per game at week's end and didn't allow an opponent to score 100 points until the Hawk rout. All of which makes it easy to understand why Olajuwon, in his 10th NBA season, feels much better about his supporting cast than he did as recently as 1� years ago, when he was itching to be traded.
Before a game against the Bucks in Houston earlier last week, Olajuwon leaned his chair back into his locker room stall, extended his arm before him and made a long, graceful sweep, as if to say, Behold my teammates, with whom I am well pleased. "I look around this room, and many of the faces I see are the same, but there is something different in the eyes," he says. "We are changed somehow. What is the word I'm looking for? Transformed, that's it. We have been transformed."
Nothing much changed from what was an ordinary team two years ago, not until the Rockets endured a seven-game losing streak early last season. In retrospect that slide was the beginning of the metamorphosis, the darkness before the light. "In a way it was probably the best thing that could have happened to a new coach," Tomjanovich says. "After seven straight losses it's not hard to get players to commit to a little different way of doing things." Since the end of that skid the Rockets have gone 57-12, with two 15-game winning streaks and another string of 10 straight victories.