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It also became painfully apparent to the Bulls that without Rodman their interior defense was paper thin. Houston's Kevin Willis, who before Sunday was averaging 8.7 points, started at power forward in Barkley's place and hurt Chicago badly by scoring 20, mostly on jump hooks from the low post. Olajuwon finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds. "They're not the same team inside without Rodman," Willis said afterward. "They'll have to figure out an answer for that—but the Bulls are still the Bulls."
Well, no, actually they're not. Not when they have to rely on the inexperienced Caffey in the starting lineup; not when Jordan and Pippen, whose energy Jackson was hoping to conserve for the postseason, have to crash the boards and play heavier minutes than usual (Jordan, who at week's end was averaging 37.8 minutes, played 43 on Sunday, and Pippen, averaging 38.5, was on the court for 41); and not when they have to double-team in the low post more often because they don't have Rodman to play the opponent's best inside scorer without help.
No team can sympathize more with Chicago's efforts to save itself for the postseason than Houston. The Rockets' three venerable stars, Barkley (age 33). Olajuwon (34) and guard Clyde Drexler (34), have kept each other fresh by taking turns in the offensive spotlight. After Barkley almost single-handedly destroyed the Knicks with 29 points and 12 rebounds in a 106-86 victory on Jan. 14, Olajuwon felt as if he'd had the night off. "I could play another game," he said afterward. "I had no work to do tonight." Drexler responded, "That's all right, Dream. Next game we climb on your back." Three nights later Olajuwon was ready, leading Houston with 26 points and 12 rebounds in a win over the Dallas Mavericks.
One of Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich's regular-season objectives is keeping his triumvirate healthy and rested, which is why he has scaled back his practices. "We walk through things, address whatever points we need to address and get out of there," Rudy T says. "If I wear these guys out in practice, it's going to cost me a game." The Houston players get cranky when they don't get their rest. Anyone who suggested last week that their first game against Chicago, a 110-86 Rockets loss at the United Center on Jan. 11, was a good indicator of the relative merits of the two teams was quickly reminded by any Houston player within earshot that the Rockets had been playing their fourth game in five nights. The Bulls, the Rockets pointed out, had been playing merely the second of back-to-back outings. "We're not a young team," says Barkley. "Me, Dream, Clyde, none of us is the player he was a few years ago. Anytime we play our fourth game in five nights, we're going to struggle. Just remember, in the playoffs, you pretty much play only every other day. So don't read too much into that game."
In fact, the only incident worth remembering from it may have been the one that occurred long after the game was over, when Jordan headed for the visitors' locker room in search of his pal Barkley to finalize their dinner plans. " Y'all have a hard week? You only played two games," Barkley said with a laugh when Jordan entered. "You're getting that preferential treatment from the NBA. They've got to guarantee y'all a spot in the Finals because you're the only good team in the East."
"Only good team in the East?" Jordan said with a laugh. "You've got only five teams over .500 in the West. We've got 10."
"Yeah," Barkley replied, "but how many of 'em are any good?"
They both had a good chuckle over that one, but the laughter now has stopped for the Bulls, at least temporarily. The rest of the league doesn't seem as amusing anymore. And neither does Dennis Rodman.