For years the Houston Rockets were Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy and a bunch of guys named Mike. Or Tom. Or Robert. The names changed but the mediocrity didn't.
"This club has had a lot of trips up and a lot of trips down," said Murphy, the 5-foot-10 guard who still packs enough energy at 32 to stock several NBA franchises. "Now, though, it isn't just one guy or two guys. It's 11. That's why we're here."
Here is the NBA Western Conference final. The Rockets and Kansas City Kings go into the third game of their series Friday night with Houston now holding the home-court advantage after the teams split two games in Kansas City.
It was not expected that these teams, both 40-42 during the regular season, would make it so far in the playoffs. The Kings' upset of Portland and Phoenix were stunning, especially considering injuries to their star guards, Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong. And the Rockets' upsets of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs were as unlikely. But not because of lack of talent.
"If you're going to be honest, none of us would even have thought for a second two months ago that we would be here," said Robert Reid, the rapidly improving fourth-year forward. "let's face it, back then we didn't even think we could make the playoffs.
"Now, we're all the way into it."
The Rocket turnaround began the first week in January when Del Harris, a conservative coach by nature, decided to abandon the approach he had taken for 44 games and stary anew.
"We were 19-25 and not playing well at all," Harris said today. "I was looking at the NBA statistics and I noticed we were 22nd (of 23) in three defensive categories: points allowed field goal percentage allowed and blocked shots.
"We were scoring plenty, fourth in the league. But is was obvious if we were going to do anything, it was time to do it with defense."
Off the bench came Billy Paultz, 32 and 6-11 -- slow, often clumsy. But every team he has played on in 11 years has made the playoffs. Off the bench came Mike Dunleavy. No scorer, but a tenacious defender.
"I told the players we had to center our aggressiveness around the foul lane because that's where we were getting hurt," Harris said. "I told them to attack anything that moved in the lane."
Harris also came up with a motivational chart his players could relate to. "All of them spent their time in airports playing 'Space Invaders,'" Harris said. "So I called our defensive chart 'Space Invaders.' I set it up like the game, with players moving up and scoring points for blocked shots and steals."
On one side of the locker room Harris posted the team's defensive statistics for the first 44 games. On the other side, the rest of the season, each chart lasting 10 games.
"It was quite clear," Paultz said, "That Del meant business. Hit five shots in a row and dog it on defense and you sat."
The gamble worked. After giving up an average of 112 points a game for 44 games, the Rockets averaged 101 in their last 38. Blocked shots went from three a game to six a game.
"The way this team has come together reminds me a lot of the Bullets the year (1978) we won it," said Tom Henderson, who came here from Washington as a free agent after the 1979 season. "That year we struggled early, had some injuries, like this team, then peaked in the playoffs. We won then with defense, too. If you play good defense, you really only need a couple of scorers."
For the '78 Bullets it was Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge. For the '81 Rockets it is Malone and Murphy. In the first 10 playoff games they averaged 53 of Houston's 107 points a game.
"But it's when we get help that we're a good team," Murphy said. "No way 53 points is going to win an NBA game, right? The reason this team is here is as much guy 11 as one guy.
"Sure, that sounds like bull, corny, right? I've been in this league 11 years and I don't talk bull. This is a business to me and if someone on this team wasn't working, wasn't helping, I'd say so. But they're all doing it. We all know our roles and we all work at it."
The work has finally brought fans to the 16,000 seat Summit, a building traditionally half-empty, now sold out for every playoff game. They come to see Malone, they come to see Murphy. Mostly through, they come to see a winner.
What has helped create this winner is the adjustment veterans like Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich have made to new roles. Murphy has come off the bench as sixth man in all but one of the playoff games (he started the seventh game against San Antonio because Harris played a hunch; Murphy scored 42 points). Tomjanovich, four-time all star, oft-injured, plays only in spots now. 4t"That's what makes this team different from other NBA teams," Reid said. "How many 11-year pros like Rudy T. would sit on the end of the bench and try to help a guy like me? Most guy like that would sulk, or complain or just bag it. But he helps this club. He's unselfish. In this league, that's pretty amazing."
Still, the most amazing Rocket is Malone. Now in his seventh pro season since snubbing the University of Maryland to turn pro, Malone is finally happy, relaxed and a dominant force, averaging 28 points and 13 rebounds in the playoffs.
"We don't worry who we play against anymore," he said. "It can be L.A. or Phoenix or K.C.They can play Phil Ford or Otis Birdsong or whoever they want. We don't think about it. We just play. We just worry about the Houston Rockets."
He smiled underneath his goatee. "And right now, the Houston Rockets is pretty good."