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Soaring with Barkley Rockets: Off-season acquisition again puts Houston in hunt for championship.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 45 minutes to game time and Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley is warming up in a most unconventional way. Unconventional in that while most everybody else playing is either dressed for that night's game -- or nearly dressed -- Barkley is still in street clothes, giving his weekly "state of the NBA" address.

In the world according to Barkley, few are left unscathed:

On the Los Angeles Lakers: "I know the Lakers can't beat us. They get up for the big teams, and lose to the [lousy] teams. That means they're not mentally confident."

On the New York Knicks: "I thought they would be better. They're not good. And it does surprise me."

On the level of competitiveness in the league: "It's embarrassing to me, when I look at the standings. Three-fourths of the league is terrible."

Or course, the Rockets fall nowhere near the "terrible" category. Through the first month of the season, the Rockets have demonstrated that they are among the NBA's elite teams, tying the best start in franchise history before having their nine-game winning streak broken on Monday against the Toronto Raptors.

Going into tonight's game against the Boston Celtics, the Rockets have the second-best record in the league (15-2, behind only the 16-1 Chicago Bulls). And while two years ago the Rockets were winning an NBA title with center Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler leading the way, the Rockets would not be as dominant as they have been without the off-season acquisition of Barkley.

Entering play last night, Barkley was 14th in the league in scoring (20.9 points per game) and second in rebounding (with 15.7 per game), which are amazing stats for a power forward who is, in reality, a shade under 6 feet 5. Both Olajuwon and Drexler have had to adjust to the loud, circus-like atmosphere that surrounds the Houston locker room these days. But it's no problem, because they know that what Barkley brings every night can help bring the championship back to Houston.

"He can score 20 points a night, he's going to get you 15 or so rebounds a night, and that's exactly what this team needed," says Drexler, as his words are nearly drowned out by Barkley, who is seated two locker stalls away. "That's exactly what this team needed. Although he's a bit loud off the court, Charles comes to play every night."

He comes to play with a physical style and fire that, in the NBA, may be only surpassed by Michael Jordan's. Still, on a team with three of the top 50 players of all time, Barkley may be coming "to play every night" more than he expected. Barkley has averaged more than 40 minutes per game just once in his career (40.2 minutes in 1986-87 with the Philadelphia 76ers), yet is averaging a team-high 42.2 minutes this season.

He's playing increased minutes because Olajuwon has missed four games with an irregular heartbeat. But the aging Rockets (Drexler is 34, and Olajuwon and Barkley are 33) are probably the team that can least afford injuries to key players, and having Barkley as No. 2 in the league in minutes played (Latrell Sprewell is first, at 42.9) cannot last.

"With me, Clyde and Dream, we can drop dead any day as old as we are," Barkley said. "Clyde's got bad knees, Dream has a bad heart and I'm just crazy as hell. I get excited going to practice every day if Clyde and Dream show up. I never know what's going to happen."

Barkley knows what he would like to see happen at season's end -- win an NBA title, the only honor that has eluded him in his career. It's a win-now mentality in Houston, a team that unloaded young talents Sam Cassell and Robert Horry to acquire Barkley.

It's not the first time a team has traded for Barkley, thinking

championship. In 1992, the Phoenix Suns traded three key players to Philadelphia, in return for Barkley. The Suns won 62 games in Barkley's first season, and made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. But the Suns, a team of great expectations, would never return to the NBA Finals.

"My first year in Phoenix, everyone had one goal -- to win a championship," Barkley said. "After that first year, everybody's agenda changed. Two guys opened restaurants, everybody on the team got their contracts redone except me. Guys were talking about scoring more the next year. There was only one year we were on the same page."

The Suns were good enough to win at least 55 games in each of their next two seasons, but it was clear that their chance to win a title was gone. Last season when Phoenix finished 41-41, there were complaints about the treatment of Barkley and guard Kevin Johnson, who were often given practice time off. That, and the fact that Barkley was upset that the Suns shopped him without his permission, led to the trade.

"They said last year that my personality overshadowed that of the other players," Barkley said. "I said 'Yeah, you didn't say that when we were winning 60 games a year.' "

In Houston, Barkley, again, feels there is a common goal.

"The thing is chemistry, and Pat Riley calls it voluntary cooperation," Barkley said. "You can't have one guy who's trying to have a great year because he's a free agent, you can't have DTC one guy wanting to be an all-star, you can't have one guy trying to get his name in the paper."

Even though the Rockets have started the season with no-names Matt Maloney, Randy Livingston and Emanual Davis sharing the point (projected starting guard Brent Price broke his elbow in the preseason), the team has gotten off to a tremendous start. And the reason is quite clear.

"It's up to me, Clyde and Dream to set the example," Barkley said. "We can't let these young guys get into bad habits, because they have to be strong and mentally strong to get to that next level.

"We don't want to just be a good team," Barkley added. "We want to be a great team."

Bouncing back

The Houston Rockets have recorded eight of their 16 victories with fourth-quarter comebacks.

................... Time

Date, Opponent, Score, left, Final, Charles in charge

Nov. 4, at Utah, Jazz, 66-56, 11: 40, Rockets, 75-72, 44 min., 20 reb., 4 ast., 4 stl.

Nov. 7, at Denver, Nuggets, 83-81, 6: 56, Rockets, 110-108 (OT) 16 pts., 15 reb., 5 ast.

Nov. 9, vs. Utah Jazz, 65-62, 12: 00, Rockets, 91-85, 40 min., 18 reb.

Nov. 14, vs. Indiana Pacers, 85-76, 4: 32, Rockets, 90-88, 44 min., 25 pts., 13-17 FTs

Nov. 23, at Golden State, Warriors, 106-102, 0: 58.9, Rockets, 120-115 (OT), 50 min., 27 pts., 17 reb.

Nov. 24, at L.A. Lakers, Lakers, 90-81, 6: 13, Rockets, 90-85, 23 pts., 15 reb., 8 ast.

Nov. 26, vs. Portland, Blazers, 89-84, 2: 59, Rockets, 102-101 (OT), 50 min., 30 pts., 14 reb.

Nov. 30, at Washington, Bullets, 89-79, 9: 05, Rockets, 103-99, 42 min., 27 pts., 6 ast.

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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