Rocket bandwagon grows with rout


HOUSTON -- The mayor walked to midcourt before the game and promised a championship.

The P.A. announcer welcomed everyone to "Clutch City."

All that other stuff -- blowing 18- and 20-point leads against Phoenix, both newspapers writing "Choke City" headlines, the Suns ferrying fans in when the games didn't sell out -- was forgotten as a great American metropolis belly-flopped back on the bandwagon, just in time to see the suddenly beloved Houston Rockets steamroll the Utah Jazz, 100-88, in last night's opener of the NBA Western Conference finals.

"They've got their eyes set on something bigger than us," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, sounding like a man who had just had a nightmare wide awake.

"We know they've got great aspirations. We didn't come in here thinking we were going to walk all over them. We had a difficult time with them during the season.

"That's no bull. I'm not going to answer it 100 times. We know they're good. We know we have to have a perfect game to beat them. We know we have to have everybody on our team play well to beat them."

Well, no wonder the Jazz lost then.

The Jazz didn't play a perfect game, nor did all of its players play well, nor did many of them play well.

They managed a 14-9 lead and after that, the sky fell in.

The Rockets held them scoreless for 4:42 in the first quarter and went on an 11-0 run.

Rookie guard Sam Cassell, the Baltimore Dunbar alum and wild card in the Suns series when he averaged 13 points and six assists in 25 minutes and scored 22 in Game 7, came off the bench last night to score nine straight points to open the second quarter.

Karl Malone, who entered the game with a 28-point playoff average, second only to Hakeem Olajuwon's 31, missed 10 of his first 12 shots. Asked what he was thinking early in the game, the Mailman answered: "That I was playing like hell."

Jeff Hornacek missed all five of his shots in the first half.

From the mid-first period to the final seconds of the second, the Rockets outscored the Jazz 45-18 to take a 22-point lead.

What was there to say after that but good night?

Olajuwon scored 31 points. Point guard Kenny Smith hit six of his nine three-point attempts and scored 27. The Jazz found themselves on a banana peel, trying to get to Olajuwon, trying to get back to the perimeter.

"We couldn't deal with 'em," said Sloan. "They shot three-pointers well. Olajuwon was shooting it. We just couldn't contain 'em."

The Jazz did manage one small spurt, coming out of halftime with a 13-2 run that trimmed the Rockets' lead to 56-47, stirring memories of the Phoenix series when the Rockets lost leads of 18 and 20 points and Games 1 and 2, respectively.

"It's always going to be on our minds," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "That's why we were telling each other, 'Stay aggressive.'

"In the playoffs, you have to have a guy step up. Kenny Smith was the guy tonight. He was phenomenal. You've got to do it against Utah because John Stockton is such a great guy at moving the ball around."

Utah was the No. 5 seed in the West and arrived courtesy of a favorable draw, beating the fading San Antonio Spurs in the first round, blowing a 3-0 lead but beating the No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets in the second.

Houston had its own share of good fortune, drawing the toothless Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, then rallying from 0-2 in the second round when Charles Barkley's back tightened up.

But they're rolling now in Choke, er, Clutch City and pity the fools who have to stand in the way.

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