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HOUSTON -- It was a trade that brought him home, but there wasn't exactly a welcoming committee that greeted Clyde Drexler when he was traded to the Houston Rockets in February.

There was this little matter of going to battle without a power forward, and in acquiring the all-star forward the Rockets had to give up Otis Thorpe, who played a pivotal part in the team's championship run last season.

"Everyone was uncomfortable at first because we knew we won a championship with Otis," guard Kenny Smith said yesterday. "We knew Clyde was a great player, but great players don't always win championships.

"We knew we'd be a better team," Smith said of the Rockets, who had struggled prior to the trade. "But we didn't know we'd be a championship team."

But that's exactly what the Rockets find themselves on the verge of after Sunday's 106-103 victory over the Orlando Magic that gave Houston a 3-0 lead in the championship series. And Drexler, in his 12th season, is playing about as well as he has at any time in his entire career.

When the Rockets trailed by 20 points in Game 1, it was Drexler that provided the lift at the end of the second quarter that helped Houston get back in the game. And on Sunday, Drexler scored 25 points -- including seven points in the final 1:46 -- and grabbed 13 rebounds to help put the Rockets within one win of the title.

"Hakeem Olajuwon is doing everything you expect him to do, but the Rockets are getting their energy from Clyde Drexler," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "He's just got his mind made up that he isn't going to let his team lose."

Going into the series, Orlando guard Nick Anderson had already frustrated Michael Jordan, and contained in key stretches Indiana's Reggie Miller, so going against Drexler was a chance to add another notch to his belt.

But in the key match-up going into the Finals, Anderson has been no match. Drexler has constantly posted up Anderson, forcing the Magic to double-team him (the double-team allowed Drexler to feed Robert Horry for the key three-pointer with 14 seconds left on Sunday).

And his 4.3 speed in the 40-yard -- has allowed Drexler, who will turn 33 next week, to ignite Houston's running game.

"The same thing I'm doing now, these are things I've always done," Drexler said. "The difference is I'm playing with one of the best centers in the league. With Hakeem [Olajuwon] playing so well and commanding a lot of respect, we just feed off of what he does."

Olajuwon was one of the few players who welcomed the trade that was intended to jump start a Houston team that had struggled through the first half of the season.

Drexler and Olajuwon were "Phi Slama Jama" teammates at the University of Houston and played together on two Final Four teams.

That talented Houston team proved to be one of college basketball's most disappointing, failing to win a title.

Drexler would go on to play 11 1/2 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, making eight All-Star appearances and playing in two NBA championships.

But in 1990 the Trail Blazers lost in five games to the Detroit Pistons, and two years later they were beaten in six games by the Chicago Bulls. By the time the current season started, Portland was a team loaded with fading veterans, and Drexler's hopes of a championship were slim.

Drexler became unhappy in Portland, and asked to be traded. And the trade on Feb. 14 returned him to his hometown.

"I never complained and I had some good times in Portland, but I was happy with the trade and I was happy things worked out," Drexler said. "This was home to me and I grew up rooting for the Rockets, so it's special in that department. It's also special that I'm playing with one of my best friends. It's an ideal situation."

But there still was that business of winning over some of his teammates. Vernon Maxwell and the other guards wondering about their minutes.

And then there was the matter of battling the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman without Thorpe, prompting the "I hate it" comment from Horry the day of the trade.

Drexler knew there were doubters.

"There's always going to be doubts, there's always going to be criticism," Drexler said. "But the [owners and coaches] are bright. They had the [guts] to make the trade, and support it through the tough times."

And, despite the fact that Houston finished sixth in the Western Conference and wasn't expected to go far in the playoffs, Drexler by then had won over his teammates.

"I didn't realize the unselfishness he played with," Smith said. "Guys who score a lot of points you don't know how they get their points. But his mannerisms and unselfishness stand out."

And Drexler, upon making the Finals, has played like a man not wanting his third opportunity for an NBA championship to pass him by. The common theme with the Rockets is "win it for Clyde."

His time appears now, although Drexler would like to avoid talking about it. At least until the Rockets win one more game and the championship.

"It feels good to be [a game away] because you operate in a comfort zone, and then you can play with more confidence," Drexler said.

"But I'd rather not talk about it until it's over," Drexler added. "I'm just going to get up out of a wheelchair, and do the things I've

always done. And that's play hard."

Game 4

When: Tomorrow

Time: 9

TV: Ch. 11

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