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CAN ROCKETS HANDLE N.Y. PRESSURE?

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Rockets Fever broke into a cold, fearful sweat after Houston lost at home Friday night to fall into a 1-1 NBA Finals tie with the New York Knicks.

The largest city in Texas has been through this kind of panic before, with the football Oilers blowing huge leads in playoff games, the baseball Astros posting one of the best records in the major leagues over the 1980s but never making it to the World Series, and the Rockets losing in the NBA Finals in 1981 and 1986.That's why the Rockets made a TV commercial a couple of weeks ago, one in which an exasperated fan with a radio to his ear all but throws himself off the ledge of a high-rise when the game announcer says, "But wait, Olajuwon was fouled!"

No, it's not easy being a pro sports fan in Houston, particularly after the Knicks muscled the home team off the floor in Friday's 91-83 victory.

Neither will it be easy for the Rockets to get the series back to Houston and rekindle the fever by winning one of the next three games - Game 3 is Sunday night - in Madison Square Garden.

The overriding problem facing the Rockets is their lack of a classic point guard in the face of New York's indisputably championship-level backcourt pressure.

Through two games, Houston has received exactly five points from starter Kenny Smith. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich has such low confidence in Smith that the guard sat the whole fourth quarter Friday. Smith's backup, rookie Sam Cassell, has scored more than any other reserve in the series, but he also has turned the ball over seven times.

"I think the pressure that New York is putting on our point guards is definitely taking us out of what we want to do," said shooting guard Vernon Maxwell, who had seven turnovers Friday.

Hakeem Olajuwon, who is not getting the ball early and often enough, was diplomatic enough to blame it on "bad decisions" in pressure situations but stopped himself when asked why that was the case.

"I don't want to discuss it," he said. "I might be misunderstood."

Smith's inability to cope is so glaring that his opponents don't mind talking about it at all, short of challenging him by name.

"Our defense is only as good as the pressure that we put on the ball," New York coach Pat Riley said. "When an offense is directed to a post-up game, we'll give them one or two tough passes. But we don't want to give them direct entries into the post."

In a sport where numbers measure everything from second-chance points to intimidations to fast-break chances, entry passing doesn't even merit its own statistical count.

But Riley keeps count, all right.

"Hakeem and (Knicks pivot Patrick Ewing), they're going to catch the basketball a lot," Riley said. "In Game 1, Hakeem got it 47 times, and Patrick 46, and they scored a similar amount of points. I don't know the count yet for Game 2, but I'm sure we kept it from Hakeem more. I don't mind if they lob it over us to him now and again, but we want to keep as many passes as possible from going directly into him."

By rattling their counterparts the moment they cross the halfcourt line, New York guards Derek Harper, John Starks and Greg Anthony are controlling Houston's possessions.

"We are where the first line of defense starts, and the pressure has to be great," Starks said. "And when our big guys see us doing our job, they get excited and want to do theirs."

Smith, the main victim of the pressure, didn't dodge the issue.

"When it came to crunch time, we didn't make the right decisions," he said..

But the time to establish the entry pass is early in the game, and if he doesn't, Smith probably will miss a few more fourth quarters. And the Rockets could miss a return home for anything more than another round of civic dejection in Houston.