To all the skeptics, doubters and snickerers, the Houston Rockets tonight said, "This one's for you."

They used their slow-down, grind-it-out style to wear down the Boston Celtics, then applied the final touch of a near-perfect game with some incredible defense in the final two minutes to come away with a 90-92 victory and even their NBA championship series at one game apiece.

The Rockets, who have had a tough time getting people to take them seriously, now have the undivided attention of the Celtics.

This best-of-seven series isn't going to be a cakewalk.

Moses Malone was a nonfactor in Tuesday's first game, making only four of 17 field goal attempts and scoring 13 points. He was a dynamo tonight with 31 points and 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive.

That's expected of Malone, but the Rockets also got a lot of help in the final critical two minutes from Mike Dunleavy, Bill Willoughby and Allen Leavell.

It was the Houston defense that won this game, though. The Rockets limited the Celtics to only two free throws in the final 2:32 and it wasn't a fluke.

A hook shot by Cedric Maxwell gave Boston an 88-87 lead, but Willoughby regained the lead for Houston with a jumper from the deep left corner with 2:10 to play.

Maxwell missed a three-footer the next time the Celtics had the ball and Malone missed for Houston at the other end.

Then Larry Bird's magic turned tragic as he threw the ball away trying to get it inside to Kevin McHale. Then, when the Celtics got the ball back after an air ball by Malone, Bird missed an open 17-footer and the Celtics were still behind, 89-88, with 35 seconds left.

The Rockets don't run fast breaks and they don't play one on one -- except in the rarest of instances. One such occasion came with 28 seconds left, when Leavell took Tiny Archibald one on one and scored on a 12-footer in the lane for a 91-88 Houston lead.

The Celtics had two chances to get a field goal on their next possession, but Archibald and McHale couldn't put shots in. Archibald was finally fouled by Robert Reid in a scramble for the ball with 18 seconds left. He made both free throws to cut the Rocket lead to 91-90.

The Celtics were forced to foul to regain possession, so Gerald Henderson grabbed Dunleavy with 11 seconds left.

It looked like the Celtics were in for another miracle finish when Dunleavy missed the first of his two free throws. He made the second for a two-point lead and the Celtics called a timeout.

Bird threw the all inbounds at midcourt to Archibald, who passed it back to Bird to the right of the lane with Reid on him. Bird dribbled into the clear near the top of the key, but as he went up for a shot Reid went up went him and forced Bird to pass off to Archibald.

Archibald's open 17-footer from the left side bounded high off the rim with three seconds left, and the game ended without anyone gaining possession of the rebound.

Bird had another marvelous game with 19 points, 21 rebounds and five steals, but he also had five turnovers.

Malone's presence caused the Celtics all sorts of problems. Robert Parish fouled out in the fourth period after playing only 14 minutes all night. He had nine points and two rebounds.

The other Celtics who tried to guard Malone, McHale and Rick Robey, picked up nine fouls between them.

"I was consciously concerned with getting more involved with the offense," said Malone. "Got to get going. Can't wait around.I made up my mind that I was going to take charge and do exactly what I'd been doing in the other series."

This series, which resumes with games three and four Saturday and Sunday at the Summit in Houston, is a battle of styles and philosophies as much as anything else, and the Rockets got the Celtics to play their game tonight.

"It was like college basketball without the four corners," said Houston Coach Del Harris. "We don't play a slowdown because that's impossible with a 24-second clock. Colleges play a slowdown when they stand around at midcourt and talk about what they did over the weekend."

What the Rockets play is a conservative, controlled, half-court game designed to cut down a turnovers. They had only nine turnovers tonight, leading to 10 Boston points. The Celtics turned the ball over 22 times, resulting in 31 Houston points.

The Celtics had 27 fast-break opportunities and converted 13 of them for 27 points. The Rockets had only four fast-break opportunities, all after turnovers, and they converted on three of them for eight points.

The Rockets had lost 14 in a row to the Celtics before tonight's game. Tonight's victory was also their eighth on the road in the playoffs this year, an NBA record.

"And a lot of people thought we wouldn't even win one," said Harris.