Some people would have you believe that the Houston Rockets' best chance for victory Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Boston Celtics would be to stash Ralph Sampson or Akeem Olajuwon away in a back room.
That theory is based on a somewhat implausible fact: During this season's playoffs, the Rockets are undefeated in games in which one of the Twin Towers is missing at the end, either through fouls or ejection.
The latest case occurred Thursday at the Summit in Houston in Game 5 of the NBA championship series. Sampson was tossed out for punching Boston's Jerry Sichting with 9:40 to play in the second quarter, and the Rockets rallied for a 111-96 victory that sent the best-of-seven series back to Boston with the Celtics holding a 3-2 lead in their bid for a 16th NBA title.
After that episode, many are wondering about the reception Sampson will receive from the 14,890 partisans expected to make up the 271st straight sellout at Boston Garden. Some of those concerned about security are in the Celtics' organization.
"We do have extra security personnel [scheduled]," said Celtics General Manager Jan Volk, although he said it was not because of the Sampson episode. "It's just normal policy that when a series can be decided in a particular game, security is appropriately increased.
But, Volk added: "Obviously we'll be cognizant of the [Sampson] issue. This is certainly more than a typical game, but all the appropriate considerations will be made. Hopefully, it'll be successful."
The Rockets have a tough assignment as they try to become the first visiting team to win in Boston Garden in exactly six months. Although they don't want a repeat of Thursday's fight, throughout the playoffs it has become apparent that Houston plays best when spurred on emotionally. Sampson's fight, like Olajuwon's go-round with Mitch Kupchak of the Los Angeles Lakers in the deciding game of the Western Conference final, served to inspire the team.
Game 5 was the first time the Rockets were consistently able to use their fast break as an offensive weapon. That was a result of a 56-37 advantage in rebounds, which in part occurred because of the team's increased fervor.
"We kept our fire and intensity after Ralph was thrown out," said reserve center/forward Jim Petersen. "At halftime we were in the locker room saying, 'We've got to keep it up, we've got to keep it up.' "
Another spinoff of the fight was Boston's loss of composure. Guard Dennis Johnson fired the basketball at Petersen's head and was almost ejected himself just six seconds after Sampson was tossed. The team also had its worst shooting night of the championship series, making just 34 of 84 shots, a paltry 40 percent.
This gives rise to another twist on the emotion theory: If a team is to beat Boston, it must transform the game into more than basketball. When it comes to playing a pure game of basketball -- teamwork, cutting, picking and screening, making the extra pass and playing team defense -- no squad comes close to the Celtics.
But what happens when things go a little amok? In the Rockets' 106-104 victory in Game 3, a couple of questionable calls that didn't go the Celtics' way down the stretch disrupted the team's flow.
There are those who suggest that, before this series, the most difficult time Boston has had in the playoffs came in the opening round against Chicago. Although the Celtics took three straight victories, the opening two -- both at the Garden -- were in doubt because of a one-man onslaught by Michael Jordan of the Bulls, who scored 49 and then an NBA record 63 points in double overtime.
"They rely on lulling teams to death -- that's what they did in the first two games here," Petersen said of the Celtics. "They play so well and smooth, and then a guy like Larry Bird demoralizes you. If you can get up to a higher level is a key. At no point on Thursday were they in control, playing their style of ball."
Of course, the Celtics will be trying to prevent that from happening on their home court, something they've had some success at, given their 49-1 mark at the Garden this season.
"I hope the refs call the game tightly," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "If they don't, it'll be a brawl."
Added center Robert Parish: "They've outplayed us in the last two games in terms of aggressiveness. We'll be out to make sure that doesn't happen tomorrow."
Guard Danny Ainge didn't think aggressiveness would be a problem, either. "We know that we can lose this thing if we're not careful," he said. "We can't just show up on our home court, say, 'We've won 49 games at home,' and expect to win."
In case the Rockets -- who led by no more than two points and for all of 11 seconds in Games 1 and 2 -- make the game close, Bird, the league's three-time most valuable player, vows he won't let his team falter as it did in Game 5.
"I think the guys realize that I didn't get the ball enough," he said. "This time of year you want the ball in the hands of someone who'll make things happen. If the game is close, there's no question that I'll be the one shooting the shots. I'm ready to play and if I'm ready the rest of the team is, too."
If the Celtics win the NBA title, they will have a pot of $505,000 to divide up. This would be more than a quarter of the $1,750,000 NBA playoff pool.
Boston is guaranteed $50,000 for finishing with the NBA's best record and $50,000 for the best record in the Eastern Conference in addition to its playoff winnings.