At least this time it should be a fair fight.
The Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets met in Texas on Jan. 10 for the first time since Game 6 of the Western Finals last June. It should have been a good game.But Hakeem Olajuwon didn't play due to injury. Neither did Charles Barkley. Clyde Drexler sat out, too. Even starting point guard Matt Maloney didn't play.
So, with four-fifths of last year's starting lineup - including three of the 50 greatest players of all time - in sick bay, the Jazz romped, 111-84. And the Jazz took it easy on them by resting their stars in the fourth.
Today's 1:30 p.m. game, which will be the first of three Jazz appearances on NBC during March, should be much more competitive. Olajuwon, Drexler and Maloney are all expected to play. And Sir Charles is even going a (12-) step better than his teammates. Not only is he playing, but he's playing sober. Since the last time the Jazz and Rockets faced each other, Barkley admitted a drinking problem, which he says he now has under control. He's also coming off the bench so that Kevin Willis, who played great when his teammates were hurt, could remain in the starting lineup.
"Everybody knows how good Houston is if they have everybody healthy," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "With all their guys back, they are as good as any team in basketball, if you ask me."
Today's game starts a busy month of March for the Jazz in which they play 17 games, including 12 on the road and five on their current trip.
"We're starting the trip with a tough one against Houston," said Karl Malone, "but it will be good for us. It will set the tone. Whether we win or lose, it should get our heads right for the rest of the trip."
While the Rockets have their horses back and healthy, they're still not playing particularly well. Their record is only 28-28 and if the playoffs started today, they'd be the final team from the West to make it.
"It takes awhile to get everybody playing together, to develop a rhythm when you've had the injuries they've had," said Sloan. "But they're getting it back."
While the Jazz have a rough month ahead of them, the Rockets have a favorable schedule. They play eight of their next 10 at home. The players are saying it's time to start playing like a contender rather than a .500 team.
"I'm tired of hearing about how much talent we have," said Rocket forward Mario Elie. "We've got to compete."
Said Jazz killer Eddie Johnson, "We've used every excuse in the book. We've said we were injured. Then we said because of the injuries, we couldn't jell. If we play like we're capable of and play together, we win. But we haven't been doing that."
The Jazz, meanwhile, have been playing well. They've won eight of their last nine and have a one-game lead over San Antonio in the Midwest Division.
"The key is our team defense," said Malone. "When we play it, we're as good as anybody. When we don't play team defense, we're not as good as we should be. Then we just try to outscore people. We've been playing good defense of late against some really good teams and that's what we need to take out on this road trip."