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ROCKETS CONFIDENT, EVEN COCKY

When the NBA competition gets tough, the tough go . . . well . . . camping.

That's what the 1994 NBA-champion Houston Rockets did over their three-day post-season/pre-playoff "vacation."Coach Rudy Tomjanovich took his 47-35, sixth-seeded Rockets to the Galveston campus of Texas A&M for a minicamp filled with basics and bonding. Tomjanovich took his very first Rocket team there four years ago to install his philosophies, and he finds the place a comfort.

Guard Kenny Smith told the Houston Chronicle the Rockets needed that togetherness time after the disruptions of the regular season. "Just what the doctor ordered," he told Chronicle writers.

Wednesday morning, the Rockets practiced in coastal Galveston, then returned to Houston and hopped a charter flight for Utah. They arrived at their Salt Lake hotel about 9:50 p.m. Wednesday after a long but uneventful journey. The only man missing was Carl Herrera, whose injured shoulder will keep him out of games in the Delta Center Thursday and Saturday.

Tomjanovich arrived saying the minicamp helped focus the Rockets.

Presumably, they wore nametags in Galveston.

Tonight's projected starting lineup of Smith, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry, Pete Chilcutt and Clyde Drexler has only been used in three games. It is one of 17 different starting lineups this season. Houston had only seven starting lineups in its championship season.

Houston has lost 104 man-games to injury with more to follow (Herrera).

The defending NBA champions have only six players who were Rockets in last spring's title drive - Olajuwon, Horry, Vernon Maxwell, Smith, Sam Cassell and Mario Ellie.

They signed 6-foot-9 free agent Charles Jones to a rest-of-the-season contract on Saturday. He'd played 11 minutes as a Rocket until Sunday's Jazz win in Houston, when he got 25 minutes in a crash-course against Utah big men.

Tomjanovich gave 12-year NBA veteran Jones and 7-0 rookie Zan Tabak (182 minutes played) playoff roster spots over 6-7 forward Tracy Murray, obtained on Valentine's Day with Clyde Drexler from Portland for Otis Thorpe; 203 minutes in a Rocket uniform) and over 6-7 rookie guard Tim Breaux (340 minutes played).

Tomjanovich's intent is obvious: Without Thorpe or Herrera, and with Olajuwon's stiff neck better but unproven in combat, the Rockets need beefy defense and rebounding against the Jazz, no matter how much they downplay it by saying they won the '94 title with the NBA's worst offensive rebounding.

While Utah licks its chops at a Thorpe-less Houston (the Rockets are 0-3 vs. the Jazz without Thorpe), Tomjanovich and the Rockets defend it saying Drexler's passing makes them a better fast-break team that doesn't need as many offensive rebounds if it doesn't miss as many shots. Drexler also makes the Rockets' outside game smarter and even more deadly.

Despite all the changes on the defending-champion's roster, despite a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, a 7-8 record in March, 5-7 record in April and a 2-3 record against the Jazz, the Rockets are said to be highly confident, even cocky, against the team half of them vanquished in the Western Conference finals last year. They say the regular-season meant little. "It's time for the big boys to step up," Maxwell told the Chronicle.

"We're ready to defend our title," Cassell told the Associated Press. "We know what it takes. I hope they think they've got our number."