If playing the Houston Rockets is like having buildings fall on you, what is it like to play the Lakers?
Not too much fun if you can’t do something about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which the Houston Rockets didn’t do Tuesday night in a 113-104 Laker victory at the Summit.
“He kept bailing us out,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “I guess it was a routine night.”
Not exactly. Abdul-Jabbar scored 40 points, the most he has scored since Feb. 26, 1982. His biggest offensive outburst of the season came against the biggest front line he’ll face this season--or in the playoffs, where the Lakers and Rockets expect to see each other again.
“Without a doubt,” Rocket forward Robert Reid said. “We’ll both be there.”
If they do meet in the Western Conference playoffs, the Rockets must do a better job defensing Abdul-Jabbar, but the Lakers are also going to have to show a great improvement in playing Houston’s Twin Towers.
Ralph Sampson, who is 7-4, scored 33 points with 15 rebounds while 7-0 Akeem Olajuwon scored 30 points with 13 rebounds. As numbers go, those are pretty impressive, but no other Rocket scored in double figures.
The Lakers, meanwhile, got enough from people besides Abdul-Jabbar to win going-away in the final three minutes.
With the score tied at 98, Abdul-Jabbar gave the Lakers the lead for good with a three-point play and after James Worthy (18 points) stole a pass and came up with a pair of free throws, the Lakers were gone for good.
Allen Leavell dropped a three-point bomb, but Abdul-Jabbar scored inside and Michael Cooper (10 points) hit from the perimeter. Then, when Abdul-Jabbar found three defenders on him, he found Mike McGee (18 points) for a layup and a 109-100 lead with just 1:03 left.
That was it for the Rockets, who were playing tag with the Lakers for most of the game, thanks to Sampson and Olajuwon.
The Rockets collected 21 offensive rebounds, sending Sampson and then Olajuwon to the backboards in waves.
“One guy is there and then the other comes flying in,” said Kurt Rambis, who had the sad task of guarding Sampson. “If it wasn’t one, it was the other.”
But Riley eventually switched assignments on Sampson and put Abdul-Jabbar on him. Worthy moved over to take Olajuwon and the Rockets didn’t know how to counter.
The Lakers were down, 77-72, late in the third quarter when Abdul-Jabbar began defending Sampson. By the end of the quarter, the Lakers had an 88-80 lead. Sampson, who had 21 points at the half, got only 12 in the second half.
“Putting Kareem on Ralph was the key to the game,” Riley said. “Ralph is just too big for Kurt or James or anybody else for that matter.”
The Rockets had their own matchup problems. Magic Johnson had 19 assists and 18 points out of the backcourt, a place where the Rockets are more condo than towers.
Signing John Lucas would help Coach Bill Fitch, but the Rockets have been reluctant to get too interested in Lucas again since his drug relapse two months ago. Even so, the Rockets are expected to sign Lucas soon after the All-Star break.
That would pretty much even things up between these two teams, who along with Denver, are easily the class of the conference.
Since winning the Pacific Division is almost a foregone conclusion, Riley has set his sights elsewhere.
“We’re not concerned about the division,” he said. “We’ve got Houston and Denver to worry about in the conference.”
And the Rockets may have to worry about Abdul-Jabbar. They haven’t done much right with him so far. In three games against Houston, Abdul-Jabbar has averaged 35.3 points and shot 62%.
“He likes to take a step up and accept the challenge,” Riley explained Abdul-Jabbar’s success against the Rockets.
Abdul-Jabbar’s explanation was more simple.
“I have to play well or I’ll look bad,” he said.
Riley and Fitch agreed that Abdul-Jabbar is a smarter player than either of the Towers because of his greater experience.
“I don’t think either Ralph or Akeem are excellent defenders in the post position,” said Riley. “Centers like (Robert) Parish and Moses (Malone) know how to play Kareem. They bump and body him at the right time. Against the Towers, Kareem can pretty much get any shot he wants.”
There is no way to get around the fact that any Laker-Rocket playoff series would revolve around Abdul-Jabbar, Sampson and Olajuwon. Riley said it would be a matter of who gets to whom first.
Reid claimed the Rockets can win a seven-game series with the Lakers.
“The question this: Can a Rambis and a Worthy hang with a Ralph Sampson?” Reid asked. “Then they ask, can Ralph hang with Kareem? And how long can Kareem last with two seven-footers coming at him?”
Abdul-Jabbar said he doesn’t exactly know right now. Answers all-around should be forthcoming.
Laker Notes The Rockets have had 11 sellouts this season, including Tuesday night’s crowd of 16,016 . . . Because of the All-Star break, the Lakers don’t play again until next Tuesday against the Clippers in the Forum . . . Houston Coach Bill Fitch on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “He is the master of his trade. He is the most dominant player ever in a set offensive situation.” . . . Bob McAdoo missed his fourth consecutive game and his seventh in his last eight because of a bruised heel.