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Rockets Still Have Some Punch Left : Sampson Beats Up on Celtics, and His Team Follows, 111-96

Times Staff Writer

The playoffs had been such a smooth ride for the Boston Celtics, but then they hit a sudden and unexpected pothole in the road at about the same time Rocket forward Ralph Sampson started taking potshots at Celtic guard Jerry Sichting.

What happened to the Celtic team that has been heralded as one of the greatest in the history of the National Basketball Assn.?

Instead of wrapping up their 16th NBA title Thursday night, the Celtics came apart at the seams.

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They were trampled, pushed around and even bloodied by the Houston Rockets, who vaulted back into contention by claiming a 111-96 victory, although for the third time in the playoffs they had to do it without one of their star players.

This time, the Rockets did it without Sampson, who was thrown out of the game for punching Sichting. So far, the Rockets are 3-0 in playoff games when one of their towers has been banished from the court for fighting. Maybe it ought to become part of Rocket Coach Bill Fitch’s strategy.

Now, the Celtics say they are ready for more fights.

“There may be some more,” guard Dennis Johnson said. “Lumps were made to be taken and to be given.”

The Celtics took a bunch of them Thursday night, including Johnson, who received a cut near his left eye when Sampson punched him right after tagging Sichting.

Larry Bird said that Game 6 Sunday in Boston Garden may get ugly.

“Sampson and the rest of the Rockets better put on their hard hats because our fans can get nasty, too,” Bird said. “There will be a lot of contact in Boston.”

What is the source of all this talk about nastiness? No one knows what really started Thursday night’s incident because Sampson and Sichting don’t agree.

Said Sampson: “I set a pick (screen) early in the game. Talk about getting somebody back.”

Said Sichting: “I don’t know why he hit me. What could I do? I threw a couple of elbows, and then he was punching everybody.”

Sampson and Sichting collided briefly while running downcourt in the second quarter, then the 6-1 Sichting got caught in a mismatch and had to defend himself against Sampson, who is 7-4, beneath the basket.

Sichting grabbed the taller Sampson, who took a step back and then hit Sichting with his right hand. Johnson stepped in, and Sampson hit him, too. Bill Walton tackled Sampson, and in moments, there was a pile of bodies stacked on the floor of the Summit.

When order was restored, official Jack Madden ejected Sampson, but not Sichting. Sampson left with 9:35 left in the second quarter and with 12 points in 14 minutes. The Celtics might not have known it at the time, but their chances went with him.

“After all that, there was no question they got the majority of the calls,” Bird said. “They (the officials) had to make up for it, since they took out their great player.”

It has happened to the Rockets before. Akeem Olajuwon was ejected in Game 6 at Denver and in Game 5 at Los Angeles, but this was Sampson’s first time to hit the showers earlier than expected.

Once Sampson exited after the wild, bench-clearing brawl, the Rockets went from a one-point lead to 58-47 at halftime. It only got worse for the Celtics, who saw their advantage dwindle to 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.

The Celtics scored only 18 points in the third quarter and fell behind the Rockets by 21 points, a margin that eventually reached 25 in the fourth quarter.

If anyone thought the Celtics were going to have an easy time after Sampson’s ejection, they were greatly mistaken. It ought to have been a classic mismatch, but it didn’t turn out that way.

The Rockets completely dominated the Celtics on the backboards, 56-37, with Olajuwon taking down 14, to go with his 32 points, and Jim Petersen getting 12 rebounds in relief of Sampson, who had dominated Sichting in the matchup on which Game 5 turned.

“We lost our composure,” Bird said. “We fell apart. We unravelled. It was one of those games when they got up, we sort of said, ‘The hell with it,’ and now we’ll have to come back the next game.”

Sichting does not appear to be the type who should get in fights. He is not only short but also slight at 175 pounds. Sampson weighs 235, but his punches did not impress his opponent.

“My little boy hits harder than that, and he is 3 years old,” Sichting said. “I couldn’t tell if it was a punch or a mosquito.

“After he elbowed me earlier, I said I would get him for that,” Sichting said.

Boston shot only 40.5% for the game and just 28% in the third quarter, when they were outscored, 28-18.

Robert Parish played his second miserable game in his last three and finished with 1-for-8 shooting, 3 rebounds and 4 points in 22 minutes. Kevin McHale led the Celtics with 33 points, 22 in the second half.

Bird scored only 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting in 43 minutes.

The Rockets got a lift not only from Petersen, who worked 33 minutes in place of Sampson, but also from Mitchell Wiggins, especially in the first half. Wiggins scored 14 points in 18 minutes before intermission and wound up with 16 points.

Without Sampson, his twin tower, Olajuwon spent 47 minutes on the court. He made 13 of 25 field-goal attempts and also blocked 8 shots, which tied the single game record for blocked shots in a championship series.

“It got so bad in the second half that I didn’t have to coach,” Celtic Coach K.C. Jones said. “Olajuwon took over.”

Whether the Rockets have also assumed control of the series remains unclear, but Olajuwon seems convinced. “I don’t care about the Boston fans,” he said. “We’re going up there to win the championship.”

Championship Series Notes Houston’s Robert Reid set an NBA final record with 13 assists in the first half. The old record was 11, held jointly by Magic Johnson and Dennis Johnson. Reid finished with 17 assists. . . . Lewis Lloyd’s slump continued. The Rocket guard played just 18 minutes and made only 1 of 6 shots for 2 points. . . . Said Rocket Coach Bill Fitch: “That’s one of the most emotional games for a non-Game 7 I’ve ever been around.” What did he say to the Rockets after Sampson was ejected? “The speech was when 25 points went to the locker room,” he said.


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