Down-to-earth Rockets tops at rising to occasion


They're always the Other Guys. Sam Cassell's mother gets more hype than the Houston Rockets.

They played opposite the mega-market Knicks in last year's NBA Finals. This year, they have played the foil in the postseason against the powerful headline-hunting trifecta of Charles Barkley's Suns, Dennis Rodman's Spurs and Shaquille O'Neal's Magic.

They're Ed McMahon to the NBA's high-pub Johnnys, always the co-star, never cast in the leading role.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, Michael Jordan will sell more shoes than the Rockets ever have.

The TV boys hate 'em. They were all but invisible on TNT and NBC during the past regular season, even after winning the title a year ago.

Now they're about to win their second straight title, but they'll still be Who-ston, their profile rising no higher than a Nick Anderson free throw in the clutch.

It is monstrously ironic, in a way. The NBA thrives on the sell, craves hype as no other league does, and the back-to-back Rockets are all about substance instead of style.

They don't preen, bicker, gloat, mug, woof, bark, change uniform numbers, dye their hair or indulge in any of the tiresome acts of self-promotion so prevalent today across the sporting landscape.

Hakeem Olajuwon is too serene and polite to concern himself with attracting attention. Clyde Drexler is a workmanlike pro's pro now, not the skywalker of his youth. Robert Horry, who is what Sam Perkins was supposed to be, is silent. Sam Cassell has to share his commercial with his mom.

No, the Rockets aren't built for the sell. They just play ball. And they just find a way to win, always, even when they're tied to the railroad tracks, the train is coming and all appears lost. That, in fact, is just when the Rockets usually get going.

Their postseason run of the past two years has been a stunning display of heart, derring-do and all those things that make coaches weep.

That they're still the eternal Ed McMahon after all that, still the Other Guys, proves that the NBA office, shoe companies and TV boys are bent on selling sizzle, not steak. Because the Rockets are serious steak, friends.

Check out these details from their seven (going on eight) playoff series wins in a row:

* They have won eight games in which a loss would have eliminated them.

* Twice they have lost their first two home games in a series -- a death knell 99 percent of the time -- and still advanced.

* They have won 14 of 22 road games.

"It's magical, isn't it?" owner Leslie Alexander said after the Rockets beat the Magic on Friday night in Orlando to take a 2-0 lead in the Finals. "It really seems magical. There's no other way to describe it."

Well, actually, there are other ways. It's nothing you can hold in your hands. On paper, in all the conventional ways, the Rockets are no better than a half-dozen other teams in the well-balanced NBA. They finished third in the Midwest Division this season, their win total down 11 from the year before.

Their advantage lies in what you can't see, their mental makeup. They play with utter calm, mirroring Olajuwon. They're peerless in the fine art of rising to the occasion; Olajuwon certainly did against David Robinson in the conference finals, and someone else always seems to, a Cassell here, an Horry there.

And -- this is their biggest collective asset -- they're remarkable in their ability to take advantage of the second chances every team gets at various points in any playoff season.

Remember, the Suns had them down 2-0 in the conference semifinals last year after winning the first two games in Houston, and had them down 3-1 this year with two of the three remaining games set for Phoenix. But the Suns got cocky, started talking trash and let up. The Rockets crawled through that slim opening and came back to win both series.

Similarly, the Spurs were in position to knock out the Rockets after winning Game 3 and Game 4 in Houston and taking the series back to San Antonio tied at 2-2. But Dennis Rodman was late for practice before Game 5, coach Bob Hill benched him (which he had to do) and the Spurs were never the same. The Rockets didn't create the opportunity, but they didn't blow it, either.

The most obvious second chance occurred in Game 1 against the Magic on Wednesday night, when Anderson clanged four straight free throws in the final seconds, any one of which would have clinched a win for Orlando. Given that highly unlikely last chance, the Rockets tied the score on Kenny Smith's three-pointer, won in overtime and took the life out of the hype-heavy Magic, who played despondently in Game 2.

The moral is obvious: If you have the Rockets down and fail to follow through, you're going to be sorry. Just ask Barkley.

Sure, the Magic still might make this series interesting; the Rockets tend not to do anything easily.

But you can be sure the Rockets will win in the end.

Just as you can be sure that the hype will continue to elude them.

As if that matters one whit.

Which is precisely the point.

And a beautiful point at that.

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