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Houston's Tough-Guy Act Withers

Rockets start off Game 5 with a hard-nosed attitude, but it doesn't last beyond the first half.

April 29, 2004|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Jeff Van Gundy warned his team about this sort of thing, chiding his players after Game 4 for being too nice, for being little more than meek alter-egos of Karl Malone, he of the ripped jersey and sharp elbows.

So the Houston Rockets slapped on their angry faces Wednesday for Game 5, and were almost halfway home in making Gary Payton eat his no-Game-6 prediction until they committed a page-one sin in the no-mercy guide.

Guard Cuttino Mobley fouled Malone hard on a drive to the basket and did his part by walking away, defiant and daring, with three minutes left in the second quarter. But Rocket forward Kelvin Cato stepped under the basket and helped Malone up.

Forward Jim Jackson, in his 12th season, couldn't believe what he saw.

"Don't help him up," Jackson said angrily to Cato, wincing as he turned his palms upward. "What are you doing?" What the Lakers did was go into the locker room down a point at halftime. Then they outscored Houston in the third quarter, 25-9, and closed out the series in five games with a 97-78 victory.

Houston, hardened in the first half, was sent off to the side, softly.

"I think we self-imploded," said Jackson, who was still upset after the game. "I told [Cato] not to help him up. I told him [Malone] wouldn't have done the same if he knocked you over. Let him lie there."

Jackson and the Rockets played the part well before the game.

Van Gundy, who had his share of one-liners in an entertaining series, didn't have any jabs for Laker Coach Phil Jackson or jokes for the media.

The normally chatty Mobley was unapproachable, slipping on a set of headphones and heading for the trainer's room shortly after the media arrived.

But the bravado had dissipated by the time the third quarter rolled around.

Shaquille O'Neal sent Yao Ming crumpling to the floor with a perfectly timed blocked shot. He rejected another Yao attempt a few possessions later.

Then the Rocket guards started having problems. Jackson dropped the ball as he was going up for a three-point shot. He got the ball back but Steve Francis air-balled a long-range attempt as the shot clock wound down.

Mobley scored 14 points in the first quarter on five-for-five shooting but picked up his third foul in the second quarter and was ineffective the rest of the way, finishing with 16 points.

"Overall, we didn't have the resolve," Yao said. "It was a confidence problem. Being young is part of the problem, but we don't want to continue to hide behind that."

Of the 151 teams that have taken 3-1 leads in NBA playoff history, 144 have won the series. Only two teams -- the 1968 Celtics and 1995 Rockets -- have gone on the road with a 3-1 deficit and made it to the next round.

Those Rockets won three consecutive games against the Phoenix Suns, including a 115-114 decision in Game 7, on the way to beating the Orlando Magic and 23-year-old Shaquille O'Neal in the Finals. Those Rockets, seeded No. 6 in the Western Conference, went on to become the lowest-seeded team to win an NBA title.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith were on that team. The current-day Rockets, a relatively young team with Francis and Yao acting as possible cornerstones for years to come, still have some learning to do.

"It's like cramming for a test in school," Van Gundy said. "Those who study all year and prepare themselves all year to be successful usually do well on the finals."

And with that, the seventh-place team in the Western Conference was done. A team that won 46 out of 87 games this season was sent home, gently into the night.

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