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NBA PLAYOFFS

Johnson Has Magic Touch for Rockets

Western Conference: 38-year-old reserve scores 31 points in 28 minutes to spark 118-100 victory.

May 24, 1997|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Forget how they came from nowhere, from shooting 38% and 36.5% to the 58.7% of Friday night and from getting a combined seven fastbreak points the first two games of these Western Conference finals to 11. He was the one who really materialized.

It was impossible to think the Houston Rockets wouldn't be back. Eddie Johnson, now that was a different matter. But back he was in Game 3, from way back, all the way from when this kind of thing was far more common, this performance of 31 points and five three-pointers in the 118-100 victory over the Jazz that cut Utah's lead to 2-1.

"We can take him off the milk carton now," Charles Barkley said.

Said Johnson: "At least I look good on a milk carton."

Before 16,285 at the Summit, his third home of this season alone, Johnson looked good everywhere. Once an explosive outside shooter in a 15-year career, he made 12 of 17 shots, with eight of the attempts coming from behind the arc. He tied Hakeem Olajuwon for the most points by a Rocket in the 1997 playoffs. He needed only 28 minutes off the bench to get the 31.

"I was just hoping he was going to pull the trigger every time he had the ball," Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

If the Rockets had been waiting a while for this kind of showing--Johnson was at 33.8% in the postseason before Friday--imagine what it had been like for him. Opening the season with the Indiana Pacers, spending 28 games there, or about 28 more than he would have liked considering the 11 minutes per game, given the reprieve trade to Denver as part of the Mark Jackson deal, then getting waived by the Nuggets seven days later without an appearance.

The Rockets signed him March 3, looking for support amid a string of injuries to Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Brent Price, or at least a warm body. Johnson played well, shooting 47.8% and scoring 11.1 points the first month and jumping that to 12.1 in the second, but the struggle was in adjusting to the newer role with the new team, the one where he had to curtail the shots after the Big Three got healthy. He dropped to 41.6% in April.

Johnson turned 38 early in the playoffs, so at least there was something to celebrate. Meanwhile, he shot 33.3% in the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves, 34.2% against the Seattle SuperSonics in the conference semifinals and then made three of nine shots as the Jazz won the first two games.

Three in a row wasn't such a distant notion when Johnson checked in Friday. The Jazz already had a 13-point lead, and the night was only about 11 minutes old.

"Utah had a swagger, which you should when you're up, 2-0," Johnson said. "And Sedale [Threatt] and I said, 'Forget this. We've got to make something happen.' "

It only took minutes for something to happen. Johnson missed his first shot, on the Rockets' opening possession of the second quarter, but then he made five of the next seven, including three of five on three-pointers. He had 14 points in the quarter. Threatt, giving Matt Maloney some much-needed help in what has become a landslide disadvantage in the point guard matchup with John Stockton, added six points and two assists.

When Johnson, appropriately, made a 17-footer with 56 seconds left in the half, the Rockets had a new game, 51-51. They had recovered from the bad start because the 38-year-old swingman had a good one.

"We never could do anything with him after that point," Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said.

"Why not? We couldn't get to him."

Not even by the fourth quarter, when Utah could no longer use surprise as an excuse. Going the entire way, Johnson made six of seven shots and scored 14 more points, and the Rockets pulled away, ultimately sealing the game when his three-pointer with 2:56 remaining provided a 107-95 cushion. Olajuwon added eight in the final period, giving him 27 in all, while Barkley added 19 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.

Stockton had 17 points and 10 assists and Greg Ostertag outrebounded Olajuwon, 9-7, despite playing 13 fewer minutes, but that could not save the Jazz from only its second loss in 11 playoff games, and only its third in the last 31 games.

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