Cotton Fitzsimmons, coach of the Kansas City Kings, went to a baseball game Saturday to relax between the third and fourth games of the NBA Western Conference final between the Kings and Houston Rockets. During the baseball game, someone complimented Fitzsimmons on the job his team had done on Moses Malone, holding him to a total of 30 points in the second and third games.
"That's what worries me," Fitzsimmons said. "You contain a guy like that just so long. Sooner or later, he'll explode."
The explosion came today. By the time it was over, Malone had 42 points and 23 rebounds to put Fitzsimmons' Kings in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series, leading the Rockets to a 100-89 victory before 16,121 rollicking, roaring fans in the Summit.
"The big guy knows we can all talk brave and say we'll do it without him," Rocket forward Robert Reid said. "But in the end, he's the franchise."
No one argued with Reid, especially not Houston Coach Del Harris. Seconds after the victory, in the hallway outside the Rocket locker room, Harris grabbed Malone in a hug. "I really don't care about 42 points, Mo," he said. "I care about what you did to Reggie King. You doored him, shut it in his face. That was great."
Coaches always talk defense. But today, Malone's ability to shut down Kansas City forward King was a key factor. Harris had used Malone on King for almost the entire game Friday. Today he waited until halftime.
"I waited because, gee, we ask an awful lot of the big fellow," Harris said. "We ask him to score, to rebound, to block shots, to play 48 minutes. Asking him to chase a guy like King for 48 minutes would be a little too much. I decided to try to get to halftime still in the hunt, then make them move."
Harris' strategy worked. King scored 18 points on Billy Paultz in the first half. But the Rockets still led at the break, 46-45, in spite of three technical fouls, all called by Earl Strom, and the loss of starting guard Mike Dunleavy, who sprained an ankle in the first quarter and is probably lost for the remainder of the series.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape at halftime," Fitzsimmons said. "We'd shot 45 percent and we were one point down. That wasn't bad."
The Rockets came out at the start of the third quarter as if they intended to make things rough very quickly for the Kings. Reid, who had just two points in the first half, made two steals for baskets and Malone continued to dominate the inside as his teammates looked for him time and again.
"Wasn't nothing different today," he insisted. "They were still sagging and sloughing on me but I was getting my shot quicker. It doesn't matter to me how many I score. We won, that's all I care about."
Malone's protests aside, things were different today. First, Harris made an adjustment in the Rocket offense, ordering his weak side players to stay out front instead of roaming the corners. That made it harder for Kansas City to help out on Malone. With the 6-6 King fronting Malone and little help available, Malone got one lob pass after another down low. He ended up taking 34 shots after taking just 29 in the last two games combined.
"Moses has a lot of pride," said Calvin Murphy, who had 14 points. "He doesn't like the idea that he might be outplayed by anyone. He wanted the ball today and we wanted him to have it. When he looks at you as if to say, 'Here,' you go to him -- fast."
Malone's offense kept the Rockets in the lead most of the afternoon. But the Kings stayed close on King's first half, the shooting of Ernie Grunfeld (21 points) and Scott Wedman (16) and Phil Ford, who played his first Phil Ford-like game since coming off a two month layoff because of an eye injury at the start of this series.
Ford had 10 points and 10 assists today, running the offense well. He also made the shot of the series, a 360-degree spinning layup in the lane while being guarded by two men. It was the kind of shot Dean Smith never would have allowed during Ford's college days.
Down the stretch, though, Kansas City needed King's offense. But it wasn't there. During the second half King made just two of eight shots from the floor. He finished with 24 points but did not score a point during the last nine minutes until two seconds remained and the issue had been decided.
"I used my size," Malone said. "Push him away from the basket, deny him the ball. Once he gets down low, he's tough. Can't let him do that."
He didn't. With the game on the line, Malone's defense was decisive.
With 4:52 left and the Kings trailing, 81-80, Malone blocked a King jump shot. Reid scored and it was 83-80. Wedman missed for the Kings, Paultz rebounded and Malone beat everyone down the court for a dunk and an 85-80 lead. Grunfeld made a free throw, but Malone made two and it was 87-81 with 3:20 left. Wedman missed again. Malone rebounded and Major Jones made a layup to make it 89-81.
Finally, the coup de grace. With Malone in his face, King forced a 10-footer. He missed. Malone rebounded. At the other end, Malone missed a jumper, but grabbed his own rebound and was fouled as his scoop shot, made while he was falling away, swished. The lead was 92-81 with 2:32 left and it was over.