It could have been just another minor cut over the eye. One player swung his elbow and another crumpled to the ground as the play went to the other end of the court.

But it wasn't just another elbow, and this wasn't just any player. The next day - Jan. 4, 1991 - the Houston Rockets learned that an elbow by Chicago's Bill Cartwright had caused a blowout fracture to the right orbit of Akeem Olajuwon's eye. The center many believe to be the best in the game would be out for a minimum of two months, and the Houston Rockets would, presumably, become a lame horse."On the play, nobody saw what happened at the time," said Houston Coach Don Chaney. "I did not know at first how severe it was until I saw the blood coming out his nose; then things started to get scary. When you get hit in the head and you bleed from the nose, it's something to worry about. The scariest part was the blood and the fact that he was unconscious."

The news could have hardly been more discouraging. Not only was there deep concern over Olajuwon's condition ("No one slept that night," Chaney said), but even with Olajuwon, the Rockets had been struggling to stay above .500. Without him, they were bound to drop like a bag of rocks.

But odd things have been coming from Houston these days. The Rockets have suddenly, surprisingly, been playing their best basketball of the season. Going into Tuesday night's contest against the Jazz (7:30, Salt Palace), the Rockets have won a season-high four straight, including victories against San Antonio, Golden State, Milwaukee and Cleveland. They've also won seven of their last eight and are 10-8 since Akeem's Bad Dream.

At the All-Star break, the Rockets stood at in third place, 61/2 games off the lead with a respectable 27-21 record. Over their last six games the score was either tied, or Houston trailed by a point with two minutes to go. The Rockets went on to win five of those.

Houston's play has come a shock to many. Once Olajuwon went down, many assumed the Midwest Division race was strictly a Utah-San Antonio affair and that Houston would turn into so much sludge.

Even Chaney's expectations were modest. "The philosophy I took was that we would play hard and play solid defense. I thought we'd lose a couple of games, but thought we were capable of playing .500 basketball. Now, it's looking if we're ready to go places. I knew we had a chance to be at .500, but I had no idea we'd be where we are at this point."

With Akeem's absence, the Rockets spread the court and opened up their arsenel. Olajuwon was replaced by Larry Smith, who at 6-foot-8 is the smallest starting center in the NBA. Smith went on to collect an NBA season-high 25 rebounds on Feb. 3 against Golden State. He is averaging 13.6 rebounds a game and has had four 20-plus rebound games.

The scoring slack has been picked up by veteran Otis Thorpe (21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 58 percent shooting) and Kenny Smith, who became the fourth NBA player ever to make 10 straight 3-point shots. Smith has averaged 22 points (55 percent shooting) in the last 11 games.

In the last five games, Buck Johnson has averaged 20.4 points a game, five above his season average.

"I'm a little surprised at the level we're at and the way we're winning," said Chaney. "But I'm not shocked. I saw the looks on their faces when Akeem went down and people started speculating that we wouldn't win anything. Everybody just moved up to the next level."

Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan warned his team at Monday night's practice not to take the Rockets lightly. The Jazz lost 110-90 at Houston on November 11, but came back to beat the Rockets, 103-92 in the Salt Palace 17 days later.

"Houston is a very talented team, very talented," said Sloan. "They'll be tough to play. They (the Jazz) sat around in their easy chairs for a couple of days and let the pillows soften up around them. They forget how tough this is."

Certainly, when Akeem the Dream is playing, the Rockets can pose a serious threat. But now that they're without him, the rest appear to have a dream of their own.

PREGAME NOTES: Houston is 19-40 on 3-points shots in the last three games. They need only one more home run basket to set a franchise single-season record (165) . . . Houston is the most games over .500 that they've been since the end of the 1988-89 season . . . Jazz guard Jeff Malone, who has missed the last six games due to a groin pull, finally returned to practice on Monday. But he re-injured himself making a cut and is listed as doubtful to start against the Rockets.