HOUSTON — In his never-ending attempt to add a note of urgency to his team's season, Coach Pat Riley has declared the Lakers' swing through the Summit here tonight and the Omni Friday at Atlanta "critical," which it certainly is not, unless he's aiming for something higher than mere dominance.
Maybe he is? The Lakers are 28-3 since Dec. 11, 39-9 overall, the best start any defending champion, or any other team, has had since the Portland Trail Blazers were 40-8 in 1977-78.
You don't want to know what happened to the Trail Blazers. (Several starters, including Bill Walton, were hurt, the club finished 58-24 and bowed out early in the playoffs, becoming the National Basketball Assn.'s ninth straight champion not to repeat. The league is up to 19.)
And down here, where the 60th straight sellout awaits tonight's game, they're building a bonfire for the Lakers. The Rockets are finally coming together in the wake of the mid-December deal that dispatched Ralph Sampson into the netherworld of the standings in return for Eric (Sleepy) Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll.
The deal with the Golden State Warriors was made a day after the Lakers started turning around their season with Magic Johnson's shot in Boston, although the Rockets' beginning was more modest. Floyd and Carroll joined the team in Denver. In their first four days, there were three games and one practice. The Rockets went 0-3.
Since, they're 18-7. Among the losses, however, was their Forum debut, a 121-110 laugher. If the Lakers had anything to worry about, they didn't see it that night.
Since then, the Rockets are even hotter. They've won three in a row and 9 of 11, including their own rout of the Celtics at the Summit last week and a win at Portland.
"Our last game with the Rockets was a little bit of a fluke," Riley said. "We made 18 consecutive shots, and you're not going to do that every night. We got on 'em quick. I'm sure they remember getting stung. It's going to be a big-game environment."
Riley used to be keen on the concept of a contest as an opportunity to leave a message. Don't the Rockets need to let everyone--themselves, the Lakers--know they can beat the Lakers?
"Yes," Riley said. "But we know they know we know they need it."
With the addition of Carroll, the formidable Rocket inside game has only been strengthened. With Floyd and Purvis Short, who is averaging 18 points and shooting 55% over 18 games, their outside game is worthy of the team's name.
Floyd's Houston shooting percentage was in the low 40s, but he's at 48% for his last five games. Rodney McCray, starting slowly after a long holdout, had averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds for the 7 games before Tuesday night's game against the Warriors. The Rockets had been a mysteriously bad rebounding team, but they've turned that around, too, outrebounding opponents by an average of 8.2 before Tuesday.
The Friday night stop on this trip doesn't look as forbidding as it once did.
With their loss to the Sacramento Kings--in the Omni--Tuesday, the Hawks are 3-7 since meeting the Celtics, also at home, on Jan. 26 to determine the best record in the East. The Hawks were 29-11 then, 32-18 now. Reserve guard John Battle, their third-leading scorer, is out indefinitely with hepatitis. Half of the center tandem, Jon Koncak, has a bruised knee and is questionable.
"Their strength is their defense," Riley said. "Mike Fratello is one of the best defensive coaches there is. They're going to make you beat them from the outside. They pack it in. Plus they have great athletes. (Cliff) Levingston, (Dominique) Wilkins, (Antoine) Carr, they're jack rabbits."
Hawk opponents are shooting 45.8% this season, second lowest in the NBA. This is more helpful, however, when the Hawks are shooting better than their opponents. In their last seven games, the Hawks are shooting 45.3% and haven't been over 50% in 10 games.
The Lakers will return home for a Sunday game against the Detroit Pistons, owners of the East's second-best record. There is never any rest for the ambitious.