This snake is dangerous. (Houston Rockets; includes related articles on NBA playoffs)

From: The Sporting News  |  Date: 6/5/1995  |  Author: Buck, Ray; Rodgers, Ted

Despite finishing the regular season with just the tenth best record in the league the defending champion Rockets are again a force in the playoffs. The midseason trade that brought in Clyde Drexler from Portland is starting to pay off, making the Rockets a definite threat to regain the title.

Mirrors? Smoke? Who can trust the Rockets?

I mean, who are these con men in short pants? Has Don King gotten to them, too?

They show up for the NBA playoffs, flop around, nearly get themselves eliminated, then rip their opponents' heads off and spit down their necks.

There are serial killers who show more stability.

"They're human. They have to be," Spurs center David Robinson wondered aloud after Game 4 of the Western Conference finals last Sunday.

The Rockets are human, aren't they?

The Admiral didn't have to ask the question. The concern that washed over his face after the Spurs evened the series at 2-2 said it for him.

Going into the playoffs, the defending champion Rockets appeared to be just another team. No better, no worse than, oh say, half the teams in the NBA Now they're arguably the most dangerous team in the Final Four, certainly the hardest to figure.

They can't stand prosperity. They've been in more holes than a family of gophers and, last time we looked, it appeared they were headed into darkness again.

So far in the playoffs, they're 6-3 on the road and 5-0 in games in which they've faced elimination. Charles Barkley may be right. This team won't die; you have to kill it.

"It's like a snake," Barkley says.

E.R.'s Team knocked off the Jazz in five games and the Suns in seven, avoiding elimination twice against the Jazz and three times against the Suns. Now the Rockets are 2-2 against a Spurs team that beat them five out of six times during the regular season.

Can the Spurs avoid what the Jazz and Suns could not? Those pizza pals, Robinson and Dennis Rodman, showed over the weekend that they could.

The Spurs play aggressive defense and hammer the boards. Rodman's 19 rebounds in Game 4 helped the Spurs to an overall 64-39 edge. The Spurs play best when they spread the wealth. The key is Avery Johnson, a Rockets castoff who drives and dishes off.

The Spurs have no shortage of weapons. MVP Robinson. Sean Elliott. Vinny Del Negro. Off the bench come Chuck Person, Doc Rivers, J.R. Reid, Terry Cummings and Willie Anderson. All scorers.

The Rockets, conversely, rely on two self-less superstars in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, plus a cast of role players who wait until doomsday to step and knock down the biggest shot of the game.

Mario Elie has done it Robert Horry has done it. Sam Cassell has done it. And while this may not be the deepest team left in the playoffs, it's deep enough in terms of shooters who never blink.

In Olajuwon and Drexler, the Rockets easily have the best two-man game involving a pair of postup players since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Call it Showtime II, without the bells and whistles.

They prefer 3-point shooting to almost anything else good in life. They can be down-and-dirty on defense or nice guys with decorum.

Get this counterculture gibberish they like to preach: "Stay hungry and humble." Somebody ought to remind them that this is the First Person Pronoun League and that kind of talk can get you beat up on the playground.

Until recently again, the only bullying had been done by the Rockets, who carry a big stick -- Olajuwon -- and talk less trash than Billy Graham.

The fact that they can't be trusted is just part of their mystique. They march to the theme song from "The Sting." Their favorite form of recreation is a sharp stick in the eye. Their gimmick is team ball.

How else can you explain a team that struggled all season, losing twice to the Jazz in the final week only to turn around and bounce the Jazz from the playoffs with a stunning Game 5 victory at the Delta Center? Can you say Rope-A-Dope?

How else can you explain a team that spotted the Suns a 3-1 lead in the second round only to win three straight, including two at the America West Arena? Can you say Choke City, Arizona?

Bright yellow placards passed out at The Summit before Rockets games read, "Believe It Again" in big, red letters. Sort of Rodman's color when he's having a bad hair day,

Everyone knows that the first six months of the NBA season is an exercise in frivolity and that the "real season' doesn't begin until the last week of April.

So it was for the Rockets as they limped into the playoffs with the league's 10th-best record and a modest No. 6 seeding in the Western Conference. They had a losing record over the final month of the season.

The two biggest factors behind why they play better now than then are 1) the addition of Drexler and 2) the addition by subtraction of Vernon Maxwell.

It's what the Spurs have been unable -- or unwilling -- to do with their personal distraction, Rodman, whose insubordination tactics are almost as revolutionary to the sport as his 'dos and tattoos.

The Spurs keep saying that the recalcitrant Rodman is not a distraction. Yeah. Right. They keep saying it. Rodman may be the premier rebounder in the game today -- maybe ever -- but the Spurs would be a better team without him just as the Rockets are a better team without Maxwell.

The operative word in both cases is team.

Last year, Houston won the NBA title with Mad Max at shooting guard. This year, he is on a leave of absence and Drexler is on the court trying to help the Rockets repeat. Same position, different animal.

A Valentine's Day trade between the Rockets and Trail Blazers made Drexler a Rocket and helped Maxwell become paranoid. Maxwell talked himself into believing he was a lame duck.

Now he is.

When the trade came down, Maxwell was serving a 10-game league suspension for punching a fan seated in the 11th row during a game eight days earlier at Portland.

At first, Maxwell swore he could share time with Drexler and learn to live with it. All of Houston wanted to believe him, maybe no one more than Maxwell himself.

In reality, however, he was being consumed by a new demon called competitive drive. Occasionally, Drexler would spell Horry at small forward when the latter experienced chronic back pain. But that was only temporary.

Maxwell sulked. Maxwell threw up bricks. Finally, Maxwell claimed to have a hamstring injury and was sent home a few hours before Game 2 in Utah in the Rockets' first-round series.

The fact that Maxwell got into a pregame shouting match with the coach over playing time probably had more to do with what happened than a sore muscle.

Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who stands behind his players almost to a fault, suddenly could massage Maxwell's bruised ego no longer. It was ineffective and, worse, it was getting disruptive.

Ultimately, how to handle Vernon Maxwell came down to choosing between Mad Max or the team, and the choice for Rudy T was a simple one. As it should have been.

Maxwell, whose fall-away buzzer-beaters are almost legendary in Rockets franchise history, wants to play next season for John Lucas in Philadelphia or join one of the two expansion teams.

His Madness has since admitted that playing time had everything to do with his sudden and inexplicable departure from the team. I'm pretty sure he didn't figure the Rockets would still be playing into June when he left. I know I didn't. Who did?

Three key players from the 1993-94 team -- Maxwell, Thorpe and Carl Herrera -- are missing from the Rockets' improbable run in the '95 playoffs. Thorpe made a first-round exit with the Trail Blazers; Maxwell and Herrera (dislocated shoulder) appeared in one game each for the Rockets.

The TV pictures you see now of Tomjanovich raising a clenched fist and merrily running off the court after another playoff-game miracle is a far departure from the Rudy T who began the season by checking into a Galveston, Tex., hospital with chest pains and who agonized through the longest February, March and April of his life.

There were Maxwell's harebrained act in Portland and Olajuwon's freaky bout with iron deficiency anemia. All told, Rockets starters missed 78 games due to injury.

Last year, the Rockets won the NBA championship with seven starting lineups. This season, Tomjanovich has used 17 starting fineups.

In a season in which the Rockets were hoping to concentrate on defending the NBA title, they were forced instead to spend the final 10 weeks defending The Trade.

Management wasn't criticized for making a trade that created an obvious numbers problem at shooting guard, but rather for trading away power forward Otis Thorpe, an integral part of the championship team, to get in return a 32-year-old shooting guard.

To many players and fans, the front office did not give this team a fair shot at repeating and, in the process, destroyed the most sacred intangible in all of sport: team chemistry.

Granted, Drexler was a popular acquisition. He was coming home after 11 1/2 seasons in Portland to play where he had been a member of the same Phi Slama Jama fraternity as Olajuwon.

But who was going to match up against Karl Malone when the Rockets played the Jazz? Or Barkley when the Rockets played the Suns? Or Rodman when the Rockets played the Spurs? These were the questions inquiring Rockets fans wanted answered.

It took time. But now in these games that matter most in the NBA, the work turned in by Pete Chilcutt, Chucky Brown and Charles Jones -- power forward by committee -- has offset all the earlier concerns. This team plays together better than even last year's bunch.

"At first, I didn't like the trade," Horry says. Then I got to see all the things Clyde could bring to the team, and I'm glad he's here."

Drexler uses his height advantage to post up smaller guards, something he did with the Trail Blazers but not as often, or as effectively, as he is doing in Houston. Olajuwon's presence has something to do with that.

But it took Drexler every bit of 35 regular-season games to fit in with his new teammates.

Look at Michael Jordan, as great a player as he is. Even though he was returning to the same team that he left -- albeit with several new faces -- he had roughly half as many games to get ready for the playoffs and failed to pull it off.

Some other reasons behind the Rockets' playoff revival are more subtle, although just as important as Drexler or Maxwell in the overall context of the team.

Start with Olajuwon, whose devotion to his religion speaks volumes about his resolve. His Islamic faith requires its members to fast -- no food, no liquids -- between sunrise and sunset for the month of February.

As you can imagine, this makes nationally televised weekend games for Olajuwon the 90s equivalent of Bobby Riggs running around folding chairs on his side of the court to make a tennis match more interesting.

Except Hakeem is no huckster, far from it, and he certainly requires no sympathy. Anyone assigned to stop his "Dream Shake" can attest to that.

Actually, it's an unstoppable shot. Hakeem may spin one way, stop, head-pump, spin the other way, lean, head-pump, and score. It's hell on the equilibrium.

Yours, not his.

Poor MVP Robinson. On the night that he was presented his trophy by Commissioner David Stem at the Alamodome, Hakeem undressed Re Admiral in front of all his fans. Last year's MVP torched this year's MVP for 41 points that night and the Rockets went up two games to none.

The Spurs repaid the favor at The Summit, and it was up to Olajuwon to get his teammates' heads back on straight. After all, the Rockets merely handed back homecourt advantage and became underdogs again.

"That," Olajuwon said after Game 4, "is the good news."

Believe me, all the motivational speakers in the world can't equal Olajuwon's presence in a locker room. His work ethic and inner peace are the stuff of Great Depression farmers and saints.

Although he missed eight games late in the season with anemia, Hakeem has come on strong to average just under 33 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots per game in the playoffs. Then again, it's not exactly news for The Dream to load the team on his back and carry it to victory.

Olajuwon and Drexler take turns pinching themselves about being teammates again. In Game 4 of the first round against Utah, they joined Jerry West-Elgin Baylor and Olajuwon-Sleepy Floyd as only teammates in NBA history to score 40-plus points apiece in the same playoff game.

Another Rockets pair worthy of playoff praise is Horry and Elie, who give the most prolific 3-point shooting team in basketball two more mad bombers.

Add Horry-Elie to Drexler, Cassell and Kenny Smith, who leads the Rockets in 3-point shooting, and suddenly you can understand how opponents have trouble holding a lead against this team. The Rockets (appropriate name) are shooting over 40 percent in these playoffs from beyond the arc.

Remember, Tomjanovich was a pretty fair perimeter shooter in his day. As the franchise's third all-time leading scorer, Tomjanovich understands spacing and knows exactly how to maximize the inside-outside game so critical to winning.

More importantly, Rudy T has the personnel carry out his plan. Good players. Good people. They have learned how to win big games.

They like to say they do their talking on the court. That's probably because they have seen what putting one's sneaker in one's mouth can do to incite the other team. They have been that other team many times.

So, I look at the Rockets' success in these playoffs and see a team that just needed some time to heal and blend. I see Olajuwon-Drexler being the ticket to how far this team advances.

Cassell, who averages almost 10 points per game off the bench to spell Smith at point guard, was asked last week by a young cancer patient who visited practice how in the world he makes those long, long 3-point shots?

Cassell's face fit up like the inside of a Las Vegas casino. "Just luck," Sam told the kid.

This is a team that genuinely seems to care, about winning, about each other. It's a esilient team. It's a fearless team. It's a effacing team in an era of runaway egos and boorish behavior.

I checked. Not one Rocket pierces his navel or dates Madonna.

Now all this may not have anything to do with winning enough basketball games for the Rockets to bail themselves out again.

But it sure makes watching enjoyable.

RELATED ARTICLE: Rockets playbook

The Classic Rockets play, one designed to get the ball to Hakeem Olajuwon in the left block even though the other team is expecting it, calls for a player to slash across the court from the weak side. The guard with the ball passes to the player in the corner, who passes to Olajuwon.

If Olajuwon is not double-teamed, he shoots, either going to the basket or attempting his fadeaway. "He's at his best now," the Spurs' David Robinson says. "The man is going to score."

If Olajuwon is double-teamed and doesn't shoot, he passes to the teammate left open. The perimeter people are expected to stay behind the arc and attempt 3-pointers. Olajuwon is often doubled-teamed by the other team's second big man. In that case, he passes to his unguarded teammate sliding down the lane.

"You take what you can get if things are working good and people are getting the open shots," Coach Rudy Tomjanovich says.

One surprise this season is that Clyde Drexler hasn't been the slasher. Rather, he has been posting up on the other side. If he gets the ball, his teammates maneuver so that the classic Rockets play can be run from Drexler's side of the court.

RELATED ARTICLE: Spurs playbook

The simplest play in basketball continues to be the most successful at the advanced level of the NBA playoff (TSN, April 17). The pick-and-roll has helped the Spurs win two games at Houston and even the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs pull David Ronbinson out to set the pick and have Avery Johnson or Vinny Del Negro dribble around it if the defenders are picked off by Robinson or waste a step to go around him, Johnson uses his quickness to go to the basket. When Del Negro runs the play, he looks to pull up and shoot. If the ball is passed to Robinson, he takes it to the basket or shoots over the defender.

In the first two games, Johnson averaged 12 points and Del Negro 6. In the next two, Johnson averaged 17 and Del Negro 19. Robinson's average remained about the same, 26.4 in the first two and 24.5 in the next two.

Here's what the play meant: Running it repeatedly enabled the Spurs to score more. They averaged 94.5 points in the losses, 105 in the victories.

The key to the Spurs' pick-and-roll is Robinson. "David can beat you off the dribble shoot 3s, hit jumpers or play off the dribble," Coach Bob Hill says. When Robinson gets involved with the pick-and-roll, it benefits the guards. "The pick-and-roll is my play." Del Negro says. "When Avery can use his quickness, he can scrore," Hill says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Jake's wake-up call

Could the Rockets end up sending Jake O'Donnell a thank-you note?

The veteran referee's short fuse in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals led to two quick -- and questionable -- technicals on Clyde Drexler, resulting in Drexler's ejection in the sound quarter. The league office investigated and rescinded all fines, including a standard $1,000 ejection fee. O'Donnell has not worked a playoff game since.

Even the wife of Houston Mayor Bob Lanier (no, not that Bob Lanier) got into the act and phoned NBA Commissioner David Stern to complain about O'Donnell.

"This guy does not like the Rockets," says Elyse Lanier, adding incredulously, "Clyde is as wholesome as apple pie."

Since that game, Drexler, who grew up in Houston, has been a much better player than he was over the last 35 games of the regular season.

That's because Coach Rudy Tomjanovich has let Drexler dictate matchup problems, not vice versa. Drexler is running the floor in these playoffs the way he did in hid 20s. He posts up more than ever did with the Trail Blazers because the Rockets don't have a center who packs the middle. Olajuwon is not Kevin Duckworth.

Drexler, 32, is on a quest to win an NBA championship. Twice Clyde's Trail Blazers teams lost in the finals -- 4-1 to the Pistons in '90, 4-2 to the Bulls in '92.

But this is a rejuvenated Drexler and this may still be his best shot at winning a title, although the Rockets painted themselves in another corner by dropping Games 3 and 4 at home.

When Drexler first showed up after the trade, he was Clyde without the glide. Some players grumbled -- privately -- that they never were given a chance to repeat with Thorpe at power forward. It didn't help Clyde's adjustment time that the Rockets kept juggling line-ups with injuries ans illnesses to key players. High fives were replaced by handshakes and introductions in the huddle most of the season.

But in the playoffs, Drexler changed my mind. He has showed why he is one of the NBA's all-time best rebounders and passers at his position.

When his shot is falling, the Rockets win. When isn't, they don't. Drexler is averaging more than 25 points per game in playoff games won; less than 15 in playoff games lost.

Over the weekend, the Rockets appeared determined to break Drexler heart just as the Trail Blazer did so many times. And vice versa.

Jake O'Donnell may never get that thankyou after all.

RELATED ARTICLE: TARGET

Shaquille O'Neal is shooting more free throws than any other player in the playoffs. Here's how he compares with the other centers: Center Shoots FT... O'Neal Every 2:51 Robinson Every 4:14 Olajuwon Every 4:15 Smits Every 4:48

RELATED ARTICLE: Shaq's back

Shaquille O'Neil still has work to do. A lot of work. He is learning this hard lesson every day, as the NBA playoffs progress along their endless, brutish and Ahmad Rashad-littered path.

"They deprived me," O'Neal was saying Saturday afternoon.

He was talking about the game he and his Magic colleagues had just lost. After winning the first two games of their Eastern Conference finals, they were defeated by the Pacers, 105-100, in Game 3 largely because of the Pacers' effective Whack Shaq's Back defense. The Pacers slammed forearm after forearm into O'Neal's spinal column, nearly every time he touched the ball.

The strategy worked well, with O'Neal being held to 18 points, 17.5 below his series average. In one fourth-quarter stretch, a battered O'Neal missed two consecutive crucial shots. He complained about the Pacers' nasty behavior to officials, to no avail.

"I was asking them, `Did you see the two hands on my back?'' O'Neal says. "The rules are: only one hand in my back. No man on earth can hold me with one hand. You can't stop me with one hand... except when I'm deprived."

But then came the more important words, as he leaned back in his locker stall.

"My shots just didn't fall." O'Neal sais in a soft, intense whisper. "But it can't happen teo times in a row. Can't it?"

It was less of a question than a defiant statement. That was the most promising sign for the Magic.

When someone suggested O'Neal might have done better to take on outside shot in Game 3, when he was being pounded, he shook his head. "I'm never changing my style," he says. "It's power. Strictly powr. I'm not going to shoot jumpers or 3s."

So maybe he is not learning as much as we think. We'll see. One encouraging trend if you're an O'Neal fan: He is apparently taking his free throws seriously. He practiced 100 of them before Saturday's game and has improved his free-throw percentage from .533 in the regular season to .636 in the playoffs.

RELATED ARTICLE: By the numbers

If the Magic advance to the finals, Shaquille O'Neal will go against last year's MVP in Hakeem Olajuwon or this year's in David Robinson. In his first two seasons, O'Neal had trouble with both. This season, Shaq began drawing even against them.

Entering this season, O'Neal had faced Robinson and Olajuwon each four times. In those games, Robinson outscored O'Neal, 112-87, and Olajuwon outscored O'Neal, 94-75.

This season, in two games against each, O'Neal matched Olajuwon with 49 points and outrebounded him, 27-19. Against the Admiral, O'Neal scored 64 points and had 25 boards to Robinson's 58 points and 26 boards.

Here O'Neal's career stats against both men:

Matchup               Mpg    FG%    FT%   Rpg    Bpg   Ppg 
O'Neal vs. Olajuwon   40.3   .557   .485  12.8   1.7   20.7 
Olajuwon vs. O'Neal   40.5   .452   .757  10.6   4.2   23.8 
O'Neal vs. Robinson   38.3   .513   .574  13.5   1.8   25.2 
Robinson vs. O'Neal   40.3   .461   .788  12.2   3.0   28.3
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