Five years ago, Robert Reid, then a 25-year-old guard/forward, found himself involved in something neither he nor his Houston Rockets teammates quite understood -- their mini-series upset of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

"We stole the first game out there and we were saying that we could beat them," he said. "But we still thought, 'These are the Lakers. What are we talking about?' "

Led by a center named Moses Malone, Houston nevertheless completed the job in a major upset. Today, on the eve of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference final here Sunday at the Summit, the Rockets hold a surprising 2-1 lead. Reid can perceive a not-so-subtle difference between past and present.

"Back then, we didn't think we belonged," he said. "Now we know we do."

The reasons are twofold: Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon. In 1981, the Rockets' offense consisted almost entirely of Malone retrieving offensive rebounds. Their defense centered around Malone working relentlessly on the boards. But even at his best, Malone couldn't match the production and versatility of Sampson and Olajuwon.

In the Rockets' 117-109 Game 3 victory on Friday, Sampson scored eight of Houston's first 10 points. He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, which doesn't mean he faltered later on. Instead, it demonstrated how dominant Olajuwon became. He ended up with 40 points and 12 rebounds.

"Their front line is so much better now," said Magic Johnson, also a participant in the 1981 series. "They're doing so many things right that it's got us backing up too much."

That is how other teams are supposed to feel in the presence of the Lakers. But the Rockets, little by little, have more than gotten over their shyness.

"I've been giving Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respect for a long, long time, ever since I can remember watching him play," said Sampson. "But just standing there and gazing at him left me a long time ago, too. I can come on the court these days and I know that I've grown up and I say to myself, 'I can do it.' "

It certainly doesn't hurt to have Olajuwon at his side. In Game 3, Olajuwon, one of the quickest leapers in the NBA, appeared to be everywhere, slam dunking offensive rebounds or breaking up potential fast breaks with steals in the back court.

The pair's performance, at least in this series, has answered the questions of anyone who wondered whether the so-called "Twin Towers" project would work, particularly after last season's first-round playoff loss to the Utah Jazz.

"We got Ralph, we got Akeem and everyone started shouting that all of this should have happened right away -- that we'd beat the Lakers and get to the championships automatically," said Reid. "But we had to pay our dues, we had to get to know each other. They're both great players, but where would, say, Elgin Baylor had been if he didn't have Wilt [Chamberlain] and [Jerry] West there?"

Indeed, the Rockets' supporting cast has developed nicely. Reid has replaced John Lucas at point guard and contributed consistently. On Friday, he had 17 points and 12 assists. Rodney McCray, often working from a point forward position, is a steady performer and had 10 assists. Guard Lewis Lloyd topped his 24-point effort in Game 2 with a 26-point, nine-rebound encore Friday.

Then again, assists are easily attained if you can lob the ball inside to Olajuwon and Sampson. A guard's outside jumpers aren't as contested as much by defenses either.

"They are a dominant rebounding team, which means there's a reliability for their outside players," he said. "The Lewis Lloyds, they can just start to run because they know that [Akeem or Ralph] are going to get the ball. Sometimes McCray was 35 feet from the basket. We don't have that luxury -- not in this series, at least."

To win, the Lakers "are going to have to come out really angry and mad," said Johnson.

James Worthy, who has a strained neck, couldn't practice today and might not be able to play Sunday.