NEW YORK -- They've lost two straight games here against the New York Knicks, have seen their backcourt outplayed throughout the NBA Finals, and have crumbled in crunch time against a relentless defense.
Yet, to a man, the Houston Rockets want you to believe they did all they wanted to do in three games in New York, despite the fact they face elimination on their home court tonight.
"We accomplished our goal, which was to regain home-court advantage," said center Hakeem Olajuwon, whose Rockets won Game 3 in New York to take a 2-1 lead in the series. "Now the ball is in our court. We will give our fans a second chance."
They are to be commended for maintaining a positive public demeanor, but the Rockets sure looked like a team that had taken its best shot and missed badly as they returned home for Game 6 at The Summit. A week ago the Rockets had stolen the first game in New York. Tonight they fight for their lives against a Knicks team that senses the end of a journey that began three years ago when Pat Riley became coach.
"I'm not going to say it's a must win, but I think we are capable of beating Houston in Houston," said Knicks center Patrick Ewing, who tied an NBA Finals record with eight blocks and had 25 points and 12 rebounds in Friday's 91-84 win. "We're definitely going to try to end it [tonight]."
It will end tonight if the Rockets continue to be forced to play New York's style of basketball. Houston had been averaging 101.6 points in the playoffs before this series, and was a team that had buried opponents with its three-point shooting.
But against the Knicks, Houston has gotten out of the 80s just once. Neither team has scored 100 points this series -- something that has never happened in the NBA Finals since the shot clock was introduced in 1954.
"Give New York credit, they've been playing great defense," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who watched Olajuwon commit eight of the team's 18 turnovers on Friday. "During the year we were a 47 percent shooting team, 50 percent if you factor in the three-point shooting. We haven't been close to that."
The exact numbers for the Rockets this series: 40.8 percent from the field, 30.1 percent from three-point range. This from a team whose ability to work off Olajuwon for open outside shots was supposed to be the difference in this series.
Instead the offense has disappeared in the fourth quarter, where the Rockets are averaging 19.8 points.
Forward Otis Thorpe said: "We've got to return to playing Rockets basketball, with more aggressive defense and applying ourselves more at both ends of the court."
It's amazing the series isn't over yet, considering the lack of productivity Houston is getting from its starting backcourt. The only reason Vernon Maxwell's not getting more heat about his poor play (34.7 percent, eight points in Game 5), is because point guard Kenny Smith has disappeared altogether.
Smith has scored a total of 21 points this series, coming off a conference final where he had 27 points in Game 1 against the Utah Jazz.
Smith has been simply a puppet for New York guard Derek Harper, who reportedly has been verbally destroying his Houston counterpart on the court. It's so bad that Smith has asked Maxwell to help bring up the ball in certain situations.
"There are some players that you know you can bother," Harper said of his defense against Smith. "I'm making him try to feel my pressure more than anything."
Tonight won't be the first time the Rockets have been pressured in the playoffs. Houston blew big leads in losing the first two games of its conference semifinal against Phoenix, finally winning in seven.
"I think we're better with our backs to the wall," Tomjanovich said. "We've got a lot of fight in us."
And the Knicks, on the verge of their first championship since 1973, are very much aware of that.
"It's 48 minutes left, [but] we can not think about the win until we play the game," Riley said. "As excited as we may be, we still have a lot of work to do."
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Knicks lead series, 3-2)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84
Date .. .. .. .. .. ... ..Site .. .. .. .. ..Time
Today .. .. .. .. .. .. at Houston .. .. .. .. .7
Wednesday* .. .. .. .. .at Houston .. .. .. .. .9
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4