Coach Del Harris walked into the Houston Rockets' locker room at half-time tonight, looked at his players and said quietly, "I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is we're being outrebounded, we're taking bad shots, we're playing bad. The good news is, we're tied. If we hang tough for another quarter, we can do it."
The Rockets did just that, holding the Kansas City Kings to 11 points in the fourth quarter, and walked away with a 97-88 victory before 14,640 in Kemper Arena to advance to the National Basketball Association championship round.
The Rockets, the first team with a losing regular-season record to qualify for the final since 1959, won the Western Conference title series from the Kings, 4-1.
The key man for the Rockets, as usual, was center Moses Malone. His 36 points and 11 rebounds kept his team in contention the first three quarters. But it was the Rockets' defense that made them winners on a night when it seemed imminent until the end they might be blown out.
"The only way you get this far is with defense," Malone said. "We knew they would be emotional tonight and we would have to play solid defense to hang in."
The other key Rocket was Billy Paultz, the 6-foot-11 forward who has been labeled too slow throughout his 11 years in the NBA but has been in the playoffs each season. Paultz's first key play came with 4:13 left in the third quarter and it was an accident. Fighting for rebounding position with Otis Birdsone, Apultz elbowed the Kansas City guard in the lower right ribcage. Birdsone, who had made seven of eight shots the first half, had to be helped off and was not around when the Kings went cold in the fourth quarter.
The other key moment for Paultz came in the final two minutes with the Rockets clinging to an 89-84 lead. Twice, with the 24-second shot clock running down, Houston threw up bad shots, one by Robert Reid, the other by Tom Henderson. Each time Paultz got the rebound, enabling the Rockets to run off more time. Calvin Murphy then missed but got his own rebound. By the time Henderson drove for a layup to make it 91-84, only 45 seconds were left and it was over.
"I'm sorry about Otis," Paultz said. "It really was an accident. As for the two rebounds, it was an unusual situation because my man was on my back. Usually, it is the other way around. But in a situation like that where the defense is overplaying, that will happen sometimes."
Paultz smiled. "I guess it proves you don't have to be able to jump to be a good rebounder."
This was a game in which the Rockets easily could have given up early. The Kings, facing elimination, came out pumped up. With Phil Ford playing his best basketball since an eye injury sidelined him for two months prior to this series, the Kings stormed to a 23-12 lead.
The Rockets were without guard Mike Dunleavy, who sprained an ankle in Game 4 Sunday. Harris gambled, moving Reid from forward to guard and inserting Bill Willoughby at forward. The move failed. The Rockets were disjointed on offense and Willoughby quickly picked up fouls.
Still, they stayed in the game, thanks to Malone's 21 points the first half and an excellent effort by second-year reserve Allen Leavell, who made four of five shots in seven minutes.
That got Houston into the locker room tied at 50 and gave Harris a chance to deliver his good news-bad news speech.
The third quarter was much like the first two, the Kings leading by as many as seven before the Rockets came back to tie. Still, Houston trailed, 77-73, after three quarters, then scored the first six points of the fourth quarter for its first lead, 79-77, on Willoughby's first points, on two free throws with 10:12 left.
The Rockets then went 4 1/2 minutes without a point. But the Kings scored just three, and when Malone finally broke the drought on a three-point play with 5:42 remaining, Houston led, 82-80. The Kings tied one more time, when Scott Wedman, their high man with 20 points, sank a jumper.
But Reid, on a drive, and Murphy, on a steal, put the Rockets up, 86-82, and Paultz's rebounds were all they needed to escape.