Ralph Sampson performed like a worthy pretender to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's mantle tonight, scoring 24 points and outplaying the 39-year-old legend to lead the Houston Rockets to a 112-102 victory in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals before 17,505 at the Forum.
The win evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. The teams will play Friday and Sunday at the Summit in Houston, where the Rockets are 5-0 in the playoffs and 41-5 overall this season.
Sampson, after seeing Abdul-Jabbar score 31 points in Game 1, responded with a superb all-around effort tonight to help the Rockets avoid a 2-0 deficit in the series. Guard Lewis Lloyd added 24 points for the Rockets and center Akeem Olajuwon had 22.
Abdul-Jabbar, looking tired and off-balance most of the night, scored 21 points for Los Angeles, which lost its first playoff game at home this season. Guard Magic Johnson added 24.
"I just tried to keep his Abdul-Jabbar's rhythm off," said Sampson, who also grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked five shots. "You can't ever really stop him, but we tried not to give him much room to deal."
The Rockets finished with 12 blocked shots, including six by Olajuwon, as they successfully disrupted the Lakers' offense.
"Any time you have a team block 12 shots, it doesn't take into consideration the number of times they made you change their shots," said Lakers forward Maurice Lucas, who scored 13 points. "For us to be competitive, we have to do something about that. We have to put the pieces back together."
After trailing by as many as 14 points midway through the second quarter, Houston rallied behind Mitchell Wiggins' 10 second-quarter points to take a 54-53 lead at the half.
Wiggins, who entered the game with nine minutes left before intermission and his team down, 36-28, scored all of his points in a five-minute span. He brought the Rockets to within one at 49-48 on a layin with 1:58 to play.
Houston went ahead for the first time on Lloyd's layup with 1:05 left, which gave the Rockets a 52-51 lead.
Los Angeles quickly countered on a fast-break basket by Johnson, but the Rockets regained the advantage when Rodney McCray followed up a pair of misses with a layup with 31 seconds remaining.
Although still unable to contain Olajuwon (11 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the half), the Lakers built their early lead behind the inspired play of forward James Worthy (10 points) and Johnson (nine points, 11 assists).
But Abdul-Jabbar suffered through a poor first half. The Lakers' center made just five of 14 shots from the field in the first two periods. He missed five sky hooks and had four of his shots blocked.
During the seven minutes Abdul-Jabbar sat out with two fouls, the Lakers actually opened up their biggest lead, 34-20, on a jumper by Lucas with 9:35 left in the half.
The Rockets' halftime lead might have been bigger had they not shot 66 percent from the free throw line (10 for 15) and turned the ball over 10 times.
Houston built steadily upon its lead in the third quarter and went up by 14 points, 83-69, on a three-point by Robert Reid with 2:42 left in the period.
As they had in the first half, the Rockets found Sampson to be the key. On defense, he blocked two shots in the quarter and literally shoved Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket. Apparently exhausted by the battle, Abdul-Jabbar scored just two points in the quarter and missed badly on all three of his sky hook attempts.
On offense, Sampson used his quickness to easily get inside Abdul-Jabbar and scored six points in the quarter. His layup with 38 seconds left gave Houston an 87-75 lead.
The Lakers closed the gap to 87-77 entering the final period and got within 92-90 with 8:47 left.
But Lloyd, who had just four points in the Lakers' 119-107 victory in Game 1 last Saturday, tonight had 10 in the final period alone to help Houston hold on.
Los Angeles had beaten Houston in 22 of the 25 previous games between the teams.
"This was an excellent game for us, but it won't mean anything if we don't beat them at home," said Olajuwon. "We can't just win one game here and think it's over."