Your name is Dennis Johnson, you're healthy and a starting guard on an NBA team that won the league championship in 1984 and is a game away from another. And not just any team -- you play for the Boston Celtics. Life must be spectacular.

"I was walking through the mall here on Monday just trying to do some shopping," Johnson said. "This guy comes up to me and starts sticking his finger into my face, telling me how the Rockets beat our tails in Game 3 and how they're gonna do it again and again.

"All I wanted to do was shop."

When you're a member of the Celtics, the latest professional team to be labeled "America's Team," it comes with the territory.

For the Houston Rockets, the struggle just to be Texas' favorite team is enough these days, as the Celtics lead this NBA championship series, 3-1, with the possible clincher here Thursday night at 9.

No one knows that better than the Rockets' Ralph Sampson. He endures criticisms on his intestinal fortitude in print, on television and on the lips of countless thousands of people, yet he would like nothing more than for his team to achieve the lofty status of the Celtics. Is it worth it?

"Most definitely. I want to be in the finals every year like they [the Celtics] are," he said. "I would welcome people considering us a great team. But the franchise has to want it, too, and not shy away from it like they were doing when they said they had a five-year plan but only gave me a four-year contract."

There are an awful lot of folks in Texas who do regard the Rockets as a great team, regardless of what happens in Game 5 Thursday.

Still, no matter how many red-and-yellow-clad fans bull their way into the Summit and cheer with an almost religious fervor, there will still be people in the building rooting for the Celtics in their quest for title No. 16. There always are, no matter where the Celtics travel.

"I think there are subway Celts, just like Notre Dame has," says Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "They want to see us win all the time, but there are others who want us to fall on our face. I prefer the adorers."

As much as he wants to win his third championship ring, Johnson wonders about the burden attached to such fanaticism.

"I think people are crazy to think that way. I mean, look at the world," he said. "There's enough hatred going on without someone hating you over basketball. This is supposed to be an enjoyable game -- I don't need someone yelling at me because my name is Dennis Johnson and I'm standing in Houston."

Johnson has made enough clutch jumpers to be able to deal with anything off the floor. What's happening, though, in the mind of Houston's Lewis Lloyd? Johnson's opposite number has been mired in a dreadful slump. In the Celtics' 106-103 victory Tuesday, Lloyd didn't get off the bench at all during the second half. At the team's practice today he was nowhere to be found.

Houston's presence at this level is regarded in some circles as somewhat flukish, although with young talents like Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, it's obvious this is a squad with the potential to be one of the league powers.

But would the Rockets play in Peoria, Ill., or Frederick, Md., or Salt Lake City for that matter, as the Celtics do? "We're America's team, huh?" asks Johnson. "Why is that, because we've only got four brothers?

"It's true that everywhere we go we see sellout crowds. But I'm no knucklehead; I know they're coming to see Larry Bird."

Could Houston match that kind of attractiveness, with its stars being Sampson, long regarded as sullen, and Olajuwon, a native Nigerian?

"If we won this thing maybe we would," said guard Robert Reid. "But according to Brent Musburger the Celtics are America's team. Ted Turner says the Atlanta Hawks are. We're probably just getting to be Texas' team."

Reid said he believes the Rockets are just "eight to 10 minutes" away from being on a par on the playing floor with Boston -- that being the collective total of his team's lapses throughout the series. However, until Houston starts lowering those division title flags and replacing them with league championship banners like those flying in Boston Garden, they can't be thought of as being anywhere near the Celtics' level.

"There's a pressure being the Boston Celtics, but I think it's good," said Jan Volk, Boston's general manager. "I wouldn't want people to expect us to lose all the time. We've won 60 games six out of the last seven seasons. The time we didn't we won 56 and the year was considered a disaster. We're a team that doesn't create ambivalent feelings. People either love us or they hate us, and the longer you're successful the more you engender that."

Houston Coach Bill Fitch helped create the monster he's now doing battle against, coming from the Cleveland Cavaliers to lead the Celtics to the 1981 championship following one of the franchise's few down periods. That rebuilding process, he says, is similar to that occurring in the Rockets' organization.

"I don't really think we could be here now, playing for the championship, if we hadn't accomplished some of the things that the Celtics have," he said. "Knowing what we had to go through when I was there, I'd say what we've done here is at the same level."

Whether that's enough to capture the nation's heart doesn't really concern him, Fitch added.

"I just want to be Houston's team," he said.