HOUSTON — After more than five years of trying, the Houston Rockets finally beat the Lakers in the Summit.
What does it all mean?
Will the Rockets' 109-103 victory Sunday afternoon mean anything if the Lakers play the Rockets in the playoffs?
"Any game won or lost in the regular season has no impact on the playoffs," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.
All right, now ask Akeem Olajuwon if the game will count for something later if the two teams meet in the conference finals.
"If the Lakers get that far," he said.
As you can see, the Rocket confidence level seems to have risen to a new level. It has taken a long time to get there, but now the Rockets truly believe they can dispatch the Lakers if they do run into them again in the playoffs.
"Now, I know we can beat them," said Olajuwon, whose proof was his 25 points and 11 rebounds.
The newly crowned Midwest Division champion Rockets were a pretty confident bunch, for most of the way. They started the game quickly, but they struggled and hung on to win, even though they looked like they might crack down the stretch.
With 2:37 to go, the Rockets led, 104-92, on a tip-in by Mitchell Wiggins. Two minutes, two missed shots and three turnovers later, the Rocket lead was all but gone and the Lakers were within 104-100.
Would the Lakers win again, in spite of themselves? Not this time.
"The law of averages caught us," Laker Coach Pat Riley said.
After losing 14 consecutive times to the Lakers in the Summit, Robert Reid's 18-foot jumper with 23 seconds left made sure it wouldn't happen again.
To be sure, the Rockets didn't really deserve to lose another one to the Lakers, and they played as if a victory meant a lot more to them than the Lakers did.
The Rockets shot 58%, outrebounded the Lakers by 10, Ralph Sampson worked over Abdul-Jabbar for 19 points, 17 rebounds and 9 assists, and the Lakers simply didn't have enough going for them to pull this one out.
"They were really committed," James Worthy said. "You could see it in their faces."
You could see it clearly in the first quarter, when the Rockets jumped to a 30-18 lead. They stayed in front the rest of the way. One of the reasons they managed to do that was because they handled Abdul-Jabbar easily.
Abdul-Jabbar, who had averaged 41.3 points against the Rockets this season, scored only 18 when Coach Bill Fitch altered his defense a little bit.
No longer were Olajuwon or Sampson left to defend Abdul-Jabbar one-on-one. Instead, they got a lot of help, usually from a guard dropping down to double team him.
As a result, Abdul-Jabbar seemed unsure of himself. Not until the halfway point of the third quarter did he make his first hook shot. In the locker room afterwards, Abdul-Jabbar had as much trouble explaining his game as he did playing it.
"I can't explain it," he said. "I'm not into analysis. It was just one of those nights. They started fast and we just didn't have any zip."
There was an early clue that the Rockets would at last snap their home-court Laker jinx. The Lakers committed nine turnovers in the first quarter alone, and although they goofed up only five more times the rest of the way, the Lakers proved to be victims of their early ball-handling sins.
Magic Johnson led the Lakers with 20 points and 20 assists, tying his season high for assists for the second time, but he had four turnovers in the first quarter when the Rockets bolted out in front.
Abdul-Jabbar, who had only four points in the first half, which ended with the Rockets up, 55-47, scored eight points in the third quarter, but the Lakers managed to fall behind by 10 points going into the fourth period.
Michael Cooper's jumper brought the Lakers to within 91-84, three minutes into the fourth quarter, but Wiggins twice dropped long-distance jumpers.
A little later, Wiggins tipped in a missed shot by Sampson to give the Rockets what appeared to be a safe, 104-92 lead.
Johnson's three-point play, a fast-break layup after an unwise, quick shot by Lewis Lloyd and three Laker free throws made the Rockets's big lead disappear in a hurry.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, that was their last run. So for the first time since Nov. 12, 1980, the Rockets actually defeated the Lakers on their home floor. That game was so long ago, only two Rockets still active played in that game, Reid and Allen Leavell.
"What streak?" asked Sampson. "Oh, that one. Well, it's over now."
While the Rockets basked in the afterglow of their victory, Riley took a pragmatic approach to losing.
"The reality of the situation is that we had nothing to gain," Riley said. "They played like it was their Armageddon. They had to win."
The Lakers left immediately after the game and caught a flight to Portland, where they will play the Trail Blazers Tuesday night. . . . Rocket point guard Allen Leavell did not play because of a badly swollen right hand. . . . Houston's victory was its 50th of the season, a franchise record. The Lakers are 59-19. . . . Even if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had an off-game, Ralph Sampson said it didn't really matter. "Kareem is still the king of the court," Sampson said. . . . Abdul-Jabbar left the game briefly in the second half when he hyperextended his right elbow, but the injury wasn't serious and he came back to play.