It would appear the only thing remaining for the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers is the passing of the torch. For the second time in three days, the Rockets displayed more poise and tenacity than the defending NBA champions and took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final with a 105-95 victory.
That torch might well be exchanged by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers and his counterpart at center, Houston's Akeem Olajuwon. Abdul-Jabbar, who has averaged 28 points per game for Los Angeles during the series, was outstanding today, scoring 24 points. However, he was once again bested by Olajuwon, who finished with 35 points before a sellout of 16,016 at the Summit.
Olajuwon's toughness was reflected in the fact that he shot more free throws, 20, than the entire Lakers team (17).
He hit four straight free throws to start the fourth quarter as the Rockets built a 90-83 lead with 8:41 to go. Forward Ralph Sampson, returning from a stint on the bench because of foul trouble, hit a basket to make it 98-92 with 3:19 to go, and just more than a minute later, Lewis Lloyd's jumper pushed the margin to 100-93.
The hunger of the entire Rockets team was embodied by substitute forward Jim Petersen. With Sampson in foul trouble for most of the game, Petersen, a second-year player from Minnesota, had 13 rebounds in 26 minutes.
Game 5 of the best-of-seven series will be played Wednesday night in Los Angeles and, according to Lakers Coach Pat Riley, "I know we'll be ready for that game. . . . Wednesday is all we have."
Only four teams in NBA history have been down by 3-1 and come back to win a best-of-seven series. The last to do so were the 1981 Boston Celtics, who were coached by Bill Fitch, now the Rockets' head man. Fitch said that was the first thing he told his team after today's game.
Riley, meanwhile, spent his first postgame minutes trying to rationalize the difficulties his team is facing in trying to become the first team in 17 years to repeat as league champion.
"If there is a destiny for this team, perhaps it's being at the bottom of the barrel, where things get darkest," he said. "Someone put a great team in the Eastern Conference [the Boston Celtics] and they're waiting for someone, either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Houston Rockets. Our path is very directed now -- we have to win every game."
The reason they are in that unenviable position is because "for the second time in a row, they found the gumption at the proper time," Riley said. "Rodney McCray, Robert Reid, Petersen -- at some point in the fourth quarter everyone on their team that played contributed something."
Reid was a thorn in the Lakers' side throughout the game, scoring 23 points mainly with long-distance jump shots. McCray finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, but his biggest contribution might have been when he disrupted a three-on-one Lakers fast break by blocking a Michael Cooper shot with just more than 7:30 remaining in the game.
The Rockets recovered the ball and eventually ended the possession with a Mitchell Wiggins jump shot that made the score 93-85. The Lakers would get no closer than four points for the remainder of the game.
If today's contest lacked the offensive fireworks of the Rockets' 117-109 Game 3 victory, it was because both squads were much more intense defensively. In the previous game, the Lakers shot 56 percent from the field, the Rockets 48. Today both teams hit only 46 percent of their shots.
"Both teams played great defense," said Abdul-Jabbar. "Nobody got good shots; Akeem had a great game and he didn't shoot 50 percent."
But what Olajuwon lacked in quality, he made up for in volume. Of his eight rebounds, six came on the offensive end. His relentless pounding of the boards has been as startling and powerful as Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook is majestic.
"You can't be mediocre and accomplish the things we've accomplished against this team," said Reid. "Akeem is playing every night against the best center in the league."
Sampson reentered the game with 4:25 left and immediately made his presence felt with the offensive rebound basket that gave Houston a 98-92 lead. He also scored four of the Rockets' last seven points, including a slam dunk that seemed to emphasize what the winners were on the verge of accomplishing.
"I don't think I'm bragging because the Lakers can sense it, too," said Reid. "They're saying, 'These guys have cut us deep, the blood is flowing. Now they're gonna go for the kill on Wednesday.' "