The Los Angeles Lakers' hopes of becoming the first NBA team in 17 years to repeat as league champions were dealt a blow tonight at the Summit when the Houston Rockets took a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference final series with a 117-109 victory.
Rockets center/forward Akeem Olajuwon scored 40 points and teammate Lewis Lloyd, a guard, had 26.
The Lakers, who will aim to even the series here Sunday afternoon, were led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 33 points. However, the task won't be easy. Tonight's victory improved the Rockets' home court record to 42-5.
The game was spectacular. From 3:27 of the opening period until just over two minutes remained, neither team led by more than four points. Olajuwon had 12 rebounds. Abdul-Jabbar blocked five shots. And Magic Johnson had 17 points and 20 assists.
It was a game in which most in the sellout crowd of 16,016 were hard pressed to do anything but try and keep up with the fireworks. After the Rockets rallied from an 8-0 deficit in the game's opening 2:40, only once did the teams take longer than 24 seconds to score. During one three-minute span of the third quarter, the lead moved back and forth 10 straight possessions.
By game's end, however, one statistic fairly glared out and bit the Lakers -- they scored but one field goal in the last six minutes -- definitely not typical of the high-scoring defending champions.
Then again, being down by 2-1 is a new experience, too. "We've never been down, 2-1, in a series in the last four years," said Coach Pat Riley. "We have to win Sunday to defend our championship."
The Lakers started the game as if grimly determined to win. Abdul-Jabbar, handled by the combination of Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in Game 2, scored two sky hooks to help provide the 8-0 lead. But that quickly evaporated. Sampson scored eight points in about 1 1/2 minutes and Houston went ahead with a 13-2 run. But the fun was just starting.
"Both teams were red hot, on fire," Sampson said. "It seemed like it cooled off; it had to."
That was an aberration. The Lakers shot 69 precent from the field in that first period. The Rockets, who missed their first five shots from the floor, still made 53 percent that quarter.
When the shooting did approach some rational level, the game got physical. Sampson, Olajuwon and Abdul-Jabbar each would finish the contest with five personal fouls and the order of the day by officals Jack Madden and Joe Crawford seemed to be, "Don't call anything that happens in the free throw lane."
That appeared to suit the Rockets fine. They didn't give the impression of being the least bit awed by their more exalted opponents.
"I don't think about them; I think about my team," Olajuwon said.
"I wasn't paying attention to what they were feeling," Sampson said. "I was just trying to score and rebound over them."
It was Sampson who got the Rockets the lead for good at 107-105 by laying the ball in after an offensive rebound. It was 23rd lead change of the night.
At the 3:26 mark, eight seconds after Houston forward Rodney McCray's foul shot, Maurice Lucas scored the Lakers' last basket, a jumper that brought Los Angeles within 108-107.
The Rockets kept their bravura, though. Robert Reid (17 points and 12 assists) stole Johnson's pass and eight seconds later passed to Mitchell Wiggins for a layup that a 9-2 game-ending run.
"We ran the fast break well in the first half, but in the second half we weren't patient," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We forced some things and made some mental mistakes that hurt."
If that sounds like a case of role reversal, the experienced team losing control instead of the young upstarts, that's because it was. But suddenly the Rockets, who lost four of five regular season meetings between the teams, don't seem so young any more.
"We were just going through he motions then," Olajuwon said. "We didn't play with the same intensity as we do now. If we play our game, we can beat them."
Reid seconded that, although he wasn't quite ready to proclaim the Lakers finished.
"I think the pressure is still on us," he said. "I look at that team and I see too much pride and too many championship rings for them to just fall down in front of us."