KANSAS CITY, April 21, 1981
When Moses Malone plays his game, the Houston Rockets are a good basketball team. When he plays his game and gets help from his teammates, they are virtually unbeatable.
Tonight, Malone played his game and he got help. The result was an easy 97-78 victory over the Kansas City Kings in the first game of the NBA Western Conference final before 13,885 fans in Kemper Arena.
Malone scored 17 of his 29 points during a 12-minute span in the third and fourth quarters during which the Rockets turned a tight 55-50 contest into an 86-69 blowout. But he was not alone. Guard Mike Dunleavy scored 11 of his 13 points during that stretch and Robert Reid had six of his 19.
"I started getting to the offensive boards in the third quarter," said Malone, who had 12 rebounds. "That's what gets me going. That's what gets the team going."
Malone inside was certainly the key to this game. But as this series between The-Two-Mediocre-Teams-That-Could heads into game two here Wednesday, there is a side story that might be more important than the headstart the Rockets got tonight.
That story is the return of Phil Ford. Out since being poked in the eye accidently by Golden State's Lloyd Free on Fed. 23, the 6-foot-2 point guard still has a blind spot in the eye and has had double vision. But after shooting around this afternoon, he told Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons that he felt ready to play.
Fitzsimmons has been wearing a magician's outfit through the playoff, guiding the Kings, 40-42 during the regular season, this far without Ford and without leading scorer Otis Birdsong, who missed almost the entire conference semifinal with Phoenix.
Tonight, minutes before game time, he decided to pull Ford out of his hat to give his team a psychological boost and because, "Blind spot or no, Phil is the best we've got."
None of Ford's teammates, including Ernie Grunfeld, who has run the team in Ford's place the last two months, knew he would start until the starting lineups were announced.
"I think that kind of messed them up, said former Bullet Tom Henderson, who has quietly emerged as a leader of this Houston team, also 40-42 in the regular season but which has peaked in the playoffs. "They've been playing a slow tempo and doing it well and now, all of a sudden, they're playing it fast. I think they were shocked by it. Heck, I think Phil was shocked by it."
Ford didn't look shocked, but he did look rusty. He shot just two of seven from the floor, got in trouble trying to drive inside, and had five of his team's 25 turnovers.
"It was definitely an adjustment having Phil back," said Grunfeld, the King's leading scorer with 20 points even though he bruised a hip early in the fourth quarter. "I think we were all surprised by it. But I think in the long run it will help us even if it didn't help tonight."
Ford's ineffectiveness was not the difference in this game. The Rockets best little man, Calvin Murphy, did even less than Ford, hitting just one of seven from the field and finishing with four points.
But it didn't matter. When things got tight Malone did his thing at one end and the Kings came apart at the other.
"The story tonight was not Malone, not Murphy, not Ford," Fitzsimmons said. "The story was us. We just weren't sharp. Now, we're down on the mat. We have to bounce back."
Being down is a condition both teams are familiar with. The last two qualifiers for the playoff, their presence here has shocked the league. Perhaps Fitzsimmons, greeting Houston Coach Del Harris, said it best."I'm glad for both of us," he said just before tip-off. In other words, each has already accomplished much more than expected. Still, Harris' team played tonight like one that believes it can do even more.
"I was really impressed with our alertness the second half, with our aggressiveness," Harris said. "It wasn't just Moses. It was everybody.
"People say that as goes Malone, so goes Houston. I wish that were true, because if it was we'd be 85-7. Moses is always good. It's when the other guys contribute that we're really tough."
They were tough tonight after Malone got going in the third quarter. Leading 44-41 at the half, the Rockets were only up by five with five minutes left in the third quarter. But with the score 53-48, Malone scored his team's next nine points to open the margin to 64-56.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, Malone got his help. The Kings were hanging, trailing 73-67, when Dunleavy stole the ball from Ford and fed Bill Willoughby for a dunk. Then Allen Leavell came up with a steal for another layup for a 77-67 lead. Malone hit, then Leavell, then Reid twice. By the time the 13-2 spurt was over with 5:30 remaining the Rockets were up 86-69.
It was over.