Very early in Friday night's Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Houston Rockets knew they were in trouble.
Hakeem Olajuwon missed his first eight shots and finished the first quarter with only one point, and the Rockets were getting bad vibes from the officials less than eight minutes into the game when coach Rudy Tomjanovich drew a technical foul, one of four for the night for Houston.The Rockets never led after 2-0 and wound up falling 95-86 to the Utah Jazz to cut their lead in games down to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.
"I thought our intensity level coming out wasn't what it should have been in a situation like this," said Tomjanovich. "It was kind of like our Game 3 with Portland. We say all the right things before the game, but we don't come out and do them."
When Olajuwon couldn't make his shots fall, neither could anybody else. Houston made 28 of 78 shot attempts, missed nine free throws and got 14 fewer rebounds than the Jazz. Worst of all, neither the transition game nor the three-point game worked (6-for-21), and the Jazz out-shot-blocked Houston 7-5.
"I was tired," said Olajuwon, the NBA's newly named MVP, citing Salt Lake City's altitude and saying that with a practice today, he'll get his legs under him for Sunday's Game 4.
Olajuwon finished with a game-high 29 points and 13 rebounds, but he was 10-for-23 from the field and 9-for-15 on free throws after making 13 of 13 Wednesday in Game 2 in Houston.
He also was hit with a technical foul at the same time as teammate Vernon Maxwell drew one, at 9:54 of the second quarter. John Stockton made both free throws to run the Jazz lead to 11 points, the first time it went to double figures.
"I think they were quick to call the technical fouls," said Thorpe. He shrugged about whether they were earned. "A tech is a tech," he said.
"We just didn't play a smart game," Olajuwon added. "You cannot lose your focus. You can't win against the officials."
"Our concentration level wasn't there," said guard Sam Cassell. "We beat ourselves." He added, "I think they were quick to call the technical fouls."
Guard Kenny Smith agreed that the Rockets' mental game was unsound. "We did things very uncharacteristic of what we normally do, then got involved with the referees and then got a lot of tough calls. Compound all those things, and you get a loss," said Smith, who had but four points and one basket.
Compound those things and note that the Rockets stayed close, said Olajuwon, and you have hope for the next game. "With all of that, we stayed in the game," he said.
Forward Otis Thorpe said Utah's new way of trapping the Rockets threw them off. "We didn't recognize what we were doing earlier, and they got a lot of fast breaks off us. Definitely, that (collapsing on Olajuwon) was the key to this game."
When that happens to Olajuwon, said Cassell, "Somebody has got to step up."
Utah's Tom Chambers leads all active NBA players in playoff games played without winning a championship - 101 games.
The Jazz added some new attractions for their first home game in the conference finals. The pregame fireworks display ended with a flaming JAZZ sign at midcourt, and there were Jazz-colored nacho chips - purple, green and natural (gold?).
According to Houston guard Kenny Smith, three games have been played, but nothing's happened yet. "The playoffs don't start until someone wins on the road," he said.