The Houston Rockets love challenges, so the two-time defending NBA champions should be thrilled with their next opponent in the playoffs.
The Rockets, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers 102-94 Thursday night to win their opening-round series 3-1, will play Seattle in the second round. The SuperSonics, who downed Sacramento 101-87 to win that series 3-1, have beaten the Rockets nine straight times and were the last team to oust Houston from the playoffs - three years ago in the Western Conference semifinals.Their best-of-7 series opens Saturday in Seattle. But before the Sonics start focusing on the Rockets, they're going to savor their victory over the Kings, which ended two years of first-round playoff failure.
"I am so thrilled that we've gotten past the first round, it's relief and elation combined," Seattle forward Sam Perkins said. "It took two years to climb over this. Now that we're near the top, we can see some daylight."
Also Thursday night, Indiana beat Atlanta 83-75 to force a fifth and deciding game Sunday in Indianapolis.
In other games Sunday, it's Portland at Utah in the deciding game of their first-round series, and New York at Chicago in the opener of their second-round matchup. The Bulls and Knicks swept their first-round series.
Tonight, San Antonio visits Phoenix in Game 4 of their opening-round series. The Spurs lead the Suns 2-1.
The Atlanta-Indiana winner will advance against Orlando, which swept Detroit in the opening round.
Gary Payton scored 29 points and Shawn Kemp 23 as the Sonics advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993. They won two straight in Sacramento after splitting the first two in Seattle.
"It's more of a sense of relief," said Kemp, who also had eight rebounds, six steals and three blocks. "Now we can relax and play our style of basketball. We don't have to worry about the first-round exit."
The Kings, the only team in the playoffs with a losing regular-season record, lost leading scorer Mitch Richmond with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter. Richmond, who didn't play in the second half, also was the Kings' best defender against Payton.
"It was very hard to watch and know that I couldn't help. It was very frustrating," said Richmond, who scored just five points after averaging 26 in the first three games of the series.
Hakeem Olajuwon scored 25 points, including two key baskets down the stretch, as the Rockets eliminated the Lakers in Houston.
"We had the mental preparation that helped us close out the other team," said Kenny Smith, who was 6-for-6 from the field and scored 17 points. "We were able to stop them on key possessions."
The Lakers cut Houston's lead to 91-86 on a jumper by Anthony Peeler with 4:28 left, but Olajuwon then made a baseline jumper and a hook shot to put the Rockets up 95-86 with 57 seconds remaining.
"Houston beat us by putting it all out on the line," said Magic Johnson, who had only eight points and five assists for the Lakers. "They came in as a unit and shut us down for four-five minutes. That's the difference between a Laker team and the world champions."
Cedric Ceballos led the Lakers with 25 points, while Robert Horry had 17 for the Rockets.
Pacers 83, Hawks 75
At Atlanta, the Pacers held the Hawks scoreless for more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter to stay alive in the playoffs. The Hawks missed 13 shots in a row after Grant Long's tip-in with 8:32 remaining cut the Pacers' lead to 73-71. By the time Long broke the streak with another tip-in, there was only 1:09 left and the Pacers led by 10 points. Rik Smits scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half for the Pacers, who once again played without Reggie Miller, still recovering from eye socket surgery. Steve Smith led Atlanta with 19 points.