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NBA Championship Series Notes : Lack of Poise Has Been Rockets’ Poison So Far

Times Staff Writer

Now that they’re in danger of dropping out of sight in the NBA final, the Houston Rockets might want to remember something that happened in their playoff series against the Lakers before it’s too late.

The Rockets might recall Game 3 against the Lakers at the Summit--the arena where the final resumes Sunday with the Boston Celtics holding a 2-0 lead--when Rocket Coach Bill Fitch called a time-out in the fourth quarter to slow a Laker rally.

Fitch did not speak a word to his players as they sat on the bench. Instead, Fitch wrote one word on a piece of paper and held it up in front of them: “Poise.”

We know now that the Rockets heeded Fitch’s non-verbal advice in Game 3, and also in the next two games against the Lakers, all of which they won to reach the final.

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So far against the Celtics, it seems that the Rockets have completely forgotten Fitch’s message. While they may not know the meaning of the word quit , it seems as though the Rockets no longer know the meaning of the word poise either.

“It’s been so long since the bottom dropped out of this team,” Fitch said. “It’s embarrassing to get to the final and play like this. But we haven’t played a team as good as Boston getting here.

“If we keep our poise and play the way we know we can, I think anything can happen,” he said. “Basketball is a funny game. If you give us just one win, with a young team like this, one win could be a great thing.

“But let’s face it. If we play four games like we’ve played the last two, we’ll all be fishing in a week.”

History and the Celtics are working against the Rockets. Only two NBA teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit in the final to win a championship.

The 1969 Celtics did it against the Lakers, which was also the last time anyone successfully defended a championship, and the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers did it against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“If we beat them Sunday, it’s such a big hole that it’s going to be very tough to come back,” Celtic forward Kevin McHale said.

The Lakers have got to be wondering about their timing. All during their series with the Rockets, they waited for Houston’s guards to crumble, but it never happened.

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Maybe all it took was a better defense than the Lakers had to cause it, but the Celtics have nearly shut down the Rocket backcourt, which accordingly has also limited the effectiveness of Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.

In two games, Robert Reid is shooting 10-of-25 and Lewis Lloyd 6-of-14. Off the bench, Allen Leavell and Mitchell Wiggins have made 11 of 24 field goals combined. Together, all six Houston guards have scored 71 points. Meanwhile, Boston’s starters, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, have combined for 70 points.

Fitch has been openly critical of his backcourt in the final, which may be the reason that the normally talkative Reid excused himself from any questions after Thursday night’s 117-95 blowout at Boston Garden.

“I don’t think that our guards handled the situation,” Fitch said. “This is the worst poise we’ve shown.”

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Criticism by Fitch is nothing new. When the Rockets were playing Denver in an earlier round, Fitch had this to say of Reid: “Robert is a lot like a canary. He does a lot of talking, but not a lot of flying.”

Larry Bird, who was sensational in Game 2, said he decided to take matters into his own hands during the third quarter, when the Rockets trimmed the Celtic lead to eight points.

After all, what better place is there than Bird’s hands?

By the end of the quarter, Boston’s lead was up to 15 points, and it later increased to 21. Bird finished with 31 points and said his third quarter was the difference.

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“From then on, I said to myself, ‘You might as well start shooting the ball and see what happens,’ ” Bird said. “From then on, we played a lot better offense. Houston does a lot of things well, but they just haven’t put it together yet.”

Going against Bird has not been one of Rocket forward Rodney McCray’s highlights. In the first two games, McCray has only four rebounds, while Bird has 16 rebounds, 20 assists, 8 steals and 2 blocked shots.

In fairness to McCray, he spent most of Game 2 without any defensive help, which won’t stop anybody, much less the league’s MVP for the third consecutive season.

McCray is growing weary from too much Bird.

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“Everywhere I look I see him,” McCray said. “I turn on the TV and there he is. I see enough of him on the court. I’m getting tired of seeing his face.”

Laker General Manager Jerry West is in Chicago attending the NBA’s pre-draft camp of collegians and although West wouldn’t comment, other league sources say the Lakers are extremely interested in Michigan center Roy Tarpley.

A third-team All-American selection by both AP and UPI, the 6-10, 230-pound Tarpley averaged 13.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in four years at Michigan. He is regarded as a power forward with a soft outside shooting touch and the ability to run the floor well.

For the Lakers to be in a position to draft Tarpley, they would certainly have to trade up to a higher spot than No. 23, which is where they are now.

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