Across the floor from the Houston bench at HemisFair Arena, a San Antonio Spur fan stood up and waved a big sign at the Rockets.
It read: "What the hell are you guys doing here?"
That's a question most National Basketball Association followers have been asking for the last week. The Los Angeles Lakers were expected to do away with the Rockets quickly and set up a nice run-and-gun Western Conference semifinal series with the Spurs. After all, the Rockets finished the regular season 40-42 and weren't considered a threat to the Lakers or any other playoff team.
But something happened. Moses (Malone) rose and led his men to the promised land. The Lakers fell in three games, even with the homecourt advantage, and the Spurs, who were expecting the finesse of the Lakers, got the rugged Rockets instead and lost the series opener Tuesday night. San Antonio evened the series at 1-1 with a victory at home last night.
Games 3 and 4 will be played in Houston Friday and Sunday.
The Rockets are a classic example of a team that took one superstar and surrounded him with the right supporting cast.
The superstar is, of course, Malone, the wondrous 6-foot-10 26-year-old who never went to college.
The supporting cast is a band of no-names and former greats like Tom Henderson, Calvin Murphy, Robert Reid, Mike Dunleavy and Bill Willoughby.
Second-year Coach Del Harris runs a disciplined game with well-defined roles for each player. The Rockets believe in the system.
Houston's thing is tempo. The Rockets want to slow it down, pound the ball inside and wear down the opposition.
Teams like the Lakers, Spurs and Phoenix Suns, the three teams the Rockets have to beat to get out of the West, all have a weakness for physical teams and it isn't farfetched to think that the Rockets could reach the championship final.
"When you've got a Moses Malone, anything is possible," said Harris.
Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers were the only players to finish in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding this season. Malone was first in rebounding (14.8) and second in scoring (27.8). Abdul-Jabbar was fourth in scoring and seventh in rebounding.
"Mo has an unbelievable desire to be great," said Murphy, now the prolific Rocket sixth man. "He doesn't want anybody outplaying him, ever."
Malone isn't overly talkative. He'd rather just play. He said there isn't much thinking involved in his game. It's simply one of productivity.
"I don't think too much about who I'm going against," Malone said. "I just go to the boards and to the basket. I play as hard as I can every minute. I don't know as I can every minute. I don't know any other way."
The other Rocket starters are guards Dunleavy and Henderson, the former Bullet, and forwards Billy Paultz and Robert Reid. They are slow, cumbersome and can't shoot very well, but do the job.
The gunners and speed merchants -- Murphy, Willoughby and Allen Leavell -- come off the bench with the quickness and strength the others lack.
The biggest moves Harris made were benching Rudy Tomjanocich and giving more playing time to Willoughby and Calvin Garrett and making Murphy his sixth man to get some scoring punch off the bench.
"We've been able to control the tempo in each game we've won and that's been the key to our success," said Harris. "And we started to jell at just the right time."