Rockets do it one more time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOENIX -- The Houston Rockets have three words they always believe:

Never say die.

Led by Hakeem Olajuwon's 31 points, the defending world champions won their sixth straight NBA playoff game when facing elimination, outlasting the Phoenix Suns, 103-97, in overtime last night at America West Arena.

"When our backs are against the wall, we come out fighting," Olajuwon said. "We had nothing to lose."

"What can I say about these gutsy guys?" Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "I have told you all along how much confidence I have in this team when our backs are against the wall."

Both teams shot 38 percent, but the Rockets, with Kenny Smith (21 points) hitting five of 11, had the edge with 10 three-pointers, double the Suns' total.

It was the Rockets' first playoff win in three games at the America West Arena, where they won both games during the season.

And that meant three words the Suns did not want to believe: Back to Houston.

The Suns still lead the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, 3-2, with Game 6 tomorrow night in Houston. Only four teams have come back from a 1-3 deficit to win a seven-game series, and Phoenix forward A. C. Green promised before Game 5 that "It won't happen" in the Suns-Rockets series. If Game 7 is necessary, it will be played Saturday at America West Arena.

The Rockets' championship reign seemed even more precarious when guard Clyde Drexler was stricken by stomach flu and almost did not play. He scored four points in 32 minutes. Still, the Rockets are alive.

"A. C. Green said we would never beat them three games in a row," said Houston forward Robert Horry, whose five overtime points were key. "We have confidence now. We were able to win without Clyde, and we'll have him back in Houston. I think we can get one at home. It's not over."

It's not because the Suns, one of the league's most feared offensive teams, were impatient offensively and could not make uncontested 15-foot shots. They're called free throws, and the Suns seemed suddenly unfamiliar with them.

They came into Game 5 leading the playoffs in free-throw percentage at 81.9 percent. But they made only 20 of 34 attempts -- 59 percent -- and they missed five in crunch time.

The chief culprit? Suns star Charles Barkley, a guy who revels in pressure situations. He missed three of four free throws down the stretch in regulation. He made just one of six in the game. And after a 14-point first half, Barkley scored only three points in the second half and overtime.

It left Suns coach Paul Westphal mystified, but not just at his superstar. The Suns won the rebounding battle, 68-49. They limited the Rockets to 38.4-percent shooting. Barkley and Green each grabbed 20 rebounds.

"You're supposed to win that game," Westphal said, staring at a statistics sheet in disbelief.

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