Rockets win West, rest after Jazz plays a dirge


HOUSTON -- Go ahead, try to convince yourselves that the Houston Rockets have just one play.

Sure, sure. Lob the ball down to Hakeem Olajuwon on the low block, spread the floor with spot-up, three-point shooters. Then let Olajuwon, the NBA's Most Valuable Player, make a choice.

Whirl into the lane and either dunk or draw a foul. Reverse spin to the baseline and loft a soft fallaway jump shot. Flash the ball back to Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry or Kenny Smith on the perimeter. In a pinch, wait for Otis Thorpe to come charging along the baseline, looking for a power move.

One play? Not really. But it is the essence of the Rockets, and why they were able to turn back the Utah Jazz, 94-83, last night, winning the Western Conference finals, 4-1, and advancing to the NBA finals that start next Wednesday night against New York or Indiana.

The league's final four teams have been skewered for playing ugly basketball, bouncing bodies as often as they bounce the ball, pounding one another more than they've pounded the glass. But in the midst of the negative critiques, the Rockets finally were able to apply a touch of beauty.

They did it with splash and panache, Maxwell knocking down a playoff-record four three-point shots in the first quarter, Horry nailing two triples of his own in the same period and accentuating his performance with back-to-back, spectacular run-and-dunks. And through it all, Olajuwon wasn't merely filling up his box score line; he was offering an artist's rendition. The Dream finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals.

Don't worry too much, either, about the Rockets' dreary fourth quarter, in which they were outscored, 28-15. They allowed a 26-point advantage late in the third quarter to drop to eight, but never appeared to be in any real jeopardy.

"The first quarter, we're going to put in a vault," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "We passed the ball, made all our spot-up shots, didn't come out half-stepping."

The fourth?

"That's in the toilet," Tomjanovich said. "That's playoff basketball intensity. A very tough team makes a run. Every team has to weather a storm, and we had a hurricane coming at us."

Forget Ugly Ball. What's prettier than a team smelling its first visit to the finals since 1986 spreading the floor, sending down a torrent of treys and using their best player to trigger everything? The Jazz knew all the questions, but had no answers, shooting an awful 33.3 percent from the floor, the worst playoff performance in the franchise's history.

"They just came out at the start and took away everything," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "We just looked like we wanted to get the game over, and that was pretty disappointing."

And when somebody wondered whether the Jazz had been tired, Sloan incredibly feisty and intense as a player questioned how that could possibly have been.

"I don't know how you can be tired in this situation," Sloan said. "That's beyond my imagination. They just outplayed us."

So go ahead, Houston, celebrate. At least a little. This will be the Rockets' third visit ever to the finals, with the first two games in the two-three-two format at home.

"I feel a sense of celebration and relief," said Thorpe, who swept a game-high 16 rebounds. "We know we have games ahead of us, but we did what we had to do. We were very focused at the start, but not just in making our shots. We were forcing Utah to miss. No one here is worried about the fourth quarter."

Well, almost no one. Rockets backup center Earl Cureton, one of tTC just two players among the final four teams with a championship ring (Indiana's Byron Scott is the other), knows exactly what's coming. He experienced it as a reserve with the 1982-83 Sixers.

"I'm telling these guys, celebrate tonight, be ready tomorrow, think about what's at stake," said Cureton, who joined the Rockets during the final week of the regular season. "It's not enough to get there. Portland got there (twice) and didn't get anything.

"We've got to get some killer instinct. When we get a 20-point lead, we have to learn to hold it."

Not even The Mailman could deliver enough. Karl Malone put up an imposing 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, but he knew what was missing.

"You can't dig yourself a hole like that," Malone said. "We just didn't come out with any motivation.

Another ex-Sixer, Jeff Hornacek, came out of it with a suspected broken nose after catching a hard blow from Olajuwon.

A broken nose? "Either that," Sloan said, "or his ears are turned inside out."

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