NEW YORK -- To Hakeem Olajuwon, the answer was in the numbers. In Game 3, he again had no statistical impact in the fourth quarter, leading to speculation that New York Knicks forward Anthony Mason was the Dream's worst nightmare.
"He's the greatest defensive player in the NBA," was Olajuwon's response when asked about Mason yesterday. "So great, I will give him my defensive Player of the Year trophy."
Of course Olajuwon was joking, as well he could with his Houston Rockets beating the Knicks, 93-89, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Although Olajuwon scored just four points and hit one field goal in the final quarter Sunday -- giving him three fourth-quarter field goals for the series -- his only interest is the bottom line.
"This is not like a regular-season game when everyone has big numbers, whose 28.9-point average is tops in this year's playoffs. "There are no easy baskets in the championship series."
So Olajuwon doesn't force the issue like maybe a Patrick Ewing, who missed 20 shots (9-for-29) in Game 3. When double-teamed, Olajuwon is quick to spot an open teammate. He's the guy who, while double-teamed with the Rockets down by two and less than a minute left in the game, found a wide-open Sam Cassell, whose clutch three-pointer turned the game.
"I was making my move, but I saw an opening and it was wide-open," Olajuwon said. "I'd rather go for three than for two. That was the chance you have to take. I wasn't comfortable going up with an off-balance jump hook."
So Olajuwon, in passing for a game-high seven assists, is putting his teammates in a position to step up, and on Sunday they did. Cassell scored 15 points off the bench (one fewer than New York's entire bench). And Robert Horry, who scored 20 points in the first two games, had 16 on Sunday, including two big dunks in the fourth quarter.
"I don't think I'm struggling," Olajuwon said. "My role is to do my job in other ways. I don't know how many points I scored, but it was enough for us to win."
While tired of talk that he's being dominated late in the games, Olajuwon did give Mason some credit.
"He's a very good position player," Olajuwon said.
With the win, the Rockets again have home-court advantage, something they lost in dropping Game 2.
"If you are going to be playing a Game 7, I'd rather be playing it at home," Olajuwon said.
NEW YORK KNICKS vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS
(Rockets lead series, 2-1)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Houston 93, New York 89
Date ....... Site ..... ..... Time
Tomorrow ... at New York ...... 9
Friday ..... at New York ...... 9
Sunday* .... at Houston ....... 7
June 22* ... at Houston ....... 9
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4