HOUSTON -- How they would react to a long layoff was the Houston Rockets' biggest concern going into last night's opening game of the NBA Finals. Against the New York Knicks, they proved to have just enough for a win.
Despite a 13-point fourth quarter in which Hakeem Olajuwon was held without a field goal, the Rockets were able to defeat the Knicks, 85-78, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The series continues at The Summit on Friday.
Over the final 12 minutes the Rockets shot just 15.3 percent, hitting two of 13 shots from the field. But the Knicks were hitting just 25 percent (six of 24) and totaling 15 points. The combined 28 points was the lowest-scoring quarter in the history of the finals.
"It's like an old football game played in the mud," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "When our offense goes down and we're playing a great defensive team, our defense has to carry us."
The Knicks relied on their defense also, but their second-half offense failed them completely. New York scored only 32 points in the second half and made 12 of its 50 shots -- many of the wide-open variety.
"I know it's a universal disease of ours, but at this time you have to make shots," New York coach Pat Riley said. "When they present you with a shot, you have to take it. If you don't take the first one available, you might not get another one."
Still, the Knicks had a chance to steal the game, as they cut a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to 79-76 after John Starks made one of two free throws with 2:13 left.
But after the Rockets missed two shots on their next possession Starks, with a chance to tie, shot an air ball on a three-point attempt. Olajuwon was fouled and hit a free throw and Otis Thorpe scored on a dunk with 1:04 left -- only the second Houston field goal in the quarter -- for an 82-76 lead.
"We had a tough time putting the ball in the hole in the last quarter, but our defense was able to step up and stop them when we needed to," Thorpe said. "We have confidence in our defense and confidence in our team, whether the score is in the 70s or in the 100s."
Houston will only need to score in the 80s to win if the New York backcourt continues to play as poorly as it did last night. Starks scored 11 points on 3-for-18 shooting (16.6 percent); Derek Harper had eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. That's 21.4 percent shooting from a starting backcourt that had played well toward the end of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Rockets' starting backcourt fared just slightly better, with Vernon Maxwell (4-for-16, 11 points) and Kenny Smith (1-for-4, three points) hitting only 25 percent of their shots. The long-range threat never materialized, with Houston hitting just four of 16 three-pointers.
"It was a slow pace, but this is the playoffs," was Maxwell's explanation. "We figured it would be that way. I feel we will shoot a lot better in the next game."
Going into the series, much was made of the Olajuwon-Ewing matchup, and once again the Houston center had the advantage. Olajuwon outscored Ewing (28-23) and had one more rebound (10-9) in a game where both experienced foul trouble.
The Knicks presented new defensive looks against Olajuwon, guarding him with Ewing and Oakley alternately at the start of the game. By game's end Charles Smith and Anthony Mason had both taken turns on Houston's 7-footer.
"A lot of teams will go with more of a position player rather than a shot blocker against Hakeem," Tomjanovich said. "I thought they did a terrific defensive job. They had very active hands."
The Rockets had a pair of active bodies in Thorpe and reserve forward Carl Herrera, who missed the entire Western Conference finals with a dislocated right shoulder. Thorpe scored 14 points and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, helping Houston to a 49-45 edge on the boards. Herrera finished with 10 points, hitting five of six from the field.
"Carl Herrera was sensational for us after a long layoff," Tomjanovich said. "[Thorpe's] numbers don't speak for what he does for this team."
The Rockets hope that with a game behind them after the long layoff, there will be a better flow in Friday's Game 2.
"After sitting for a week, we were rusty," Olajuwon said. "We didn't have the energy to play an up-tempo, running and jumping game. I'm just so happy we won this one. I think Friday we'll be more sharp as a team."
NEW YORK KNICKS vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS
(Rockets lead series, 1-0)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Date ... ... ... Site ... ... ... Time
Tomorrow ... ... at Houston .. .. 9
Sunday .. .. ... at New York ... 7
Wednesday .. ... at New York ... 9
June 17 * .. ... at New York ... 9
June 19 * .. ... at Houston .. .. 7
June 22 * .. ... at Houston .. .. 9
* - If necessary
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4