Rockets Launched : Suddenly, a Team Going Nowhere Is Heading for Showdown With the Lakers

Times Staff Writer

If nothing else while playing in their wonder year, the Houston Rockets lead the National Basketball Assn. in nicknames, a category in which they rank as a definite playoff favorite.

You can start with Ralph (Stick) Sampson and Akeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, collectively known as the Twin Towers. This is also the place where the Rockets always start and where they usually finish, too.

In between, though, there are other Rockets--Rodney (Bull) McCray, John (Cool Hand) Lucas, Lewis (Dr. Sweets) Lloyd and Larry (Mr. Mean) Micheaux, a Rocket who has a ballpoint pen tattoo of an airplane on his biceps.

After two humbling seasons that produced only 42 victories, but two very important coin flips, the Rockets are making a name for themselves in this, the season of the big question.

Can this team beat the Lakers in the playoffs?

"That's what I've been hearing," Laker Coach Pat Riley said. "But talk's cheap. We've been there before and they haven't."

The Rockets have been places the Lakers have not, though. Previously, the only question the Rockets had to answer was whether heads or tails would come up on a coin flip for the right to pick first in the college draft.

The Rockets' owner is Charlie Thomas, whose business interests range from cars to cattle. He owns 20 car dealerships in Texas, and his prize bull is named Mr. Suva 204. He has also been lucky on the coin flips. He called the flip right once, and the next time he heard Portland call it wrong, which was right again for the Rockets.

Thomas' rewards were Sampson and Olajuwon, the Twin Towers, a nickname, by the way, that Sampson doesn't like.

"It's already been used," he said. "(Sam) Bowie and (Mel) Turpin at Kentucky."

Whether or not the nickname is original, the Rockets have already won 40 games this season, largely because of the tall guys, whose exploits have the smaller Rockets thinking big. Maybe even Western Conference-finals big.

Lucas was asked whether he expects the Rockets and Lakers to run into each other in a conference showdown.

"Did the sun come up today?" he asked.

Well, yes it did. And as it rose, it cast some very long shadows from Sampson and Olajuwon onto the rest of the Rockets, whose presence is as much a key to whatever chance the Rockets have in the playoffs as the Twin Towers.

Coach Bill Fitch knows that the Rockets are going to have to be much more than a two-man team with a bunch of great nicknames.

"To really be a great team, really great, somebody who isn't expected to has to play super for us," he said. "The keys are the old-timers."

The Rockets are a young team, since three-fifths of the starting lineup--Sampson, Olajuwon and McCray--have a total of two years' experience in the league. But Fitch has such oldsters as 10-year veteran guard Lionel Hollins, nine-year veteran Lucas, and seven-year veteran swingman Robert Reid.

Hollins starts at point guard, and the shooting guard is a combination of Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins. Lloyd plays a horizontal game, running wild on the loose in the open court, and Wiggins, a jump-shooter on a pogo stick, plays a more vertical game.

"If I could play Dr. Frankenstein and put all their qualities in one body, we couldn't afford to pay what that one guy would be worth," Fitch said.

Wiggins, who came to the Rockets from Chicago in a trade for center Caldwell Jones, said he knows he can hit the jump shot as long as somebody gets him the ball.

"I feel like I'm sitting on the edge of a gold mine," he said.

Sitting on the edge of the bench, Reid could be an important factor if Lloyd can't handle Magic Johnson on defense. He normally replaces McCray at forward, but Reid also works some at guard.

The Rockets speedy development into a playoff force isn't necessarily surprising since most everybody gets into the playoffs anyway.

But what's happening here is a little unusual because to take the Rockets seriously as a playoff power requires a tremendous faith.

When you go from 14 victories one season to 28 the next, can you reasonably expect a team to be so good so soon that a conference championship is within reach? And that goal probably can't be reached without walking over the talented, experienced Lakers, who have been in the final series the last three years.

"That's probably too big a leap for some people, but we feel like it can happen," McCray said. "We feel like our chances of meeting the Lakers in the playoffs are very, very good. Our chances of beating them? I can give you a better prediction later."

The forecast for the Rockets was clear and sunny before the season, but some pretty bad-looking clouds formed when Lucas left the team in December after having had a drug relapse.

Hollins moved into the lineup ahead of Lucas, who last month returned to the backcourt, a Rocket problem that improved overnight. Fitch still considers the Rocket guard play his chief worry, ranking slightly ahead of the team's season-long ability to throw the ball away at the very worst time.

"We're not doing it every night, just every three nights," McCray said. "But that's too many. In fourth-quarter time, a team like the Lakers know what to do. We're still trying to find out."

Even though Fitch does not have them playing a wide-open, fast-break game like the Lakers, the Rockets have committed more turnovers than the Lakers. Sampson has more turnovers than Johnson, who handles the ball a lot more for the Lakers than Sampson does for the Rockets.

But if the Rockets don't match up well with the Lakers in the backcourt, it's different up front. Sampson, at 7-4, towers over Kurt Rambis, his 6-8 Laker matchup.

Rebounding may be a big problem for the Lakers. Olajuwon has outrebounded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by nearly 300 this season, and Sampson has nearly 200 more rebounds than Abdul-Jabbar, the Laker leader.

Fitch, however, believes that Rocket rebounding would not be overpowering in a seven-game playoff with the Lakers.

"They've got a 37-year-old superstar at center," Fitch said. "He can't be expected to grind it out, rebound and bang 82 times a year. If he did, he wouldn't be human. And if he did, he wouldn't be around all 82 games either."

To make his team more complete, Fitch yearns for a game-breaking offensive player along the lines of Chicago's Quintin Dailey, something he says the Rockets lack and clearly need.

"A guy who would rather shoot than eat," said Fitch, describing the game-breaker of his dreams.

So the Rockets close their eyes with this vision in their head. They can look down the road somewhere to the day when they meet the Lakers in the conference finals and take them out. For now, the Rockets are more a dream, and the Lakers represent reality.

Maybe it will happen for the Rockets this season. But isn't that actually a bit unrealistic?

"Probably," Fitch said. "We're growing, but they've been in the finals so often. That experience in playoffs, there's no way you can practice that."

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