Anyone can see the Houston Rockets are too old, all right. They've got bad knees and hernias and more gray hair than President Clinton. They don't see so well and they gum their food, and it seems they've lost a step or two. Take Thursday night, for instance. They crashed the Utah Jazz's coronation party and beat them 103-90, but they had to turn back a late rally to do it.
In the old days, the rally never happened.After the game, after turning the raucous Delta Center into a library and sending 20,000 fans pouting and screaming into the night, Charles Barkley, the fat old guy with the hernia, returned to the court for some extra wind sprints and free throws and maybe to harass a fan or two for practice.
These guys are serious, and now the Jazz are in serious trouble. It took the Jazz nearly 25 years to secure their first home-court advantage; it took them 48 minutes to give it away.
Forget Chicago, for a moment (at least). Here are the numbers: Thursday's loss marked only the second time in franchise history the Jazz have lost a playoff-opener on their home court. The last time was 1989 - when they were swept by Golden State.
More numbers: The Rockets are 17-0 in series in which they won their first game.
Utah, you've got a problem.
The Rockets are too old, all right. For 82 games, they acted their age, which is somewhere between 35 and 41. There were Hakeem Olajuwon's bum knees and Barkley's hernia and Clyde Drexler's creaky shoulder. There were frequent losses. There was in-house bickering. They finished eighth in the Western Conference with a 41-41 record. They lost to the Jazz four times in four tries.
Then the playoffs began and suddenly the Rockets are 18. Suddenly, the old Rockets were the Rockets of old, as one media type said, the guys who won two world titles a few years ago. Suddenly, they're all good buddies and hugging each other after the game.
"They were the ones jumping up and down . . . they were excited to play," said coach Jerry Sloan.
Maybe it was a setup.
"Everybody took this whole thing about Houston being old and hurt and swallowed that hook all the way down to the gills," said Sloan, the Illinois farmer.
Barkley is too old and hurt, all right. He didn't play for three weeks. He practiced 15 minutes this week. The rest of the time he was under a doctor's care. On Thursday, he played 27 minutes and had 12 points and six rebounds, and still had the energy to go after a fan or two and put in a post-game workout.
Olajuwon, who missed about half the season with a knee injury, is too old, too. He had only 16 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots on one good leg. Drexler, the University of Houston's head basketball coach, is too old, but he did manage a respectable 22 points.
Rumor has it that Houston will let these old birds play again in Game 2, despite their infirmities.
This old act is wearing thin with the Jazz. Three years ago, the Rockets yawned their way through the regular season and finished sixth in the Western Conference. Then they went out and upset the Jazz in the first round en route to a world championship.
This time is supposed to be different. The Jazz had the best record in the NBA, and Houston was supposed to be the warmup band for Chicago. The Jazz fired up the fireworks for pre-game introductions to give the Jazz a big sendoff Thursday night, and when the smoke cleared the Rockets climbed out of their wheelchairs and took it to the Jazz right there in their home arena.
By halftime the Rockets led 51-44. Larry Miller sat in his chair looking like a man who just swallowed a giant hairball. Sloan stood in front of the bench, arms folded in his black suit, apparently presiding over a funeral. Fans turned from cheering to jeering in the third quarter, and some of it was even printable. In just 30 minutes, the Rockets turned the Jazz's season on its ear.
The Rockets - and this could have been the first hint they were playing possum - were strangely confident all week long. They said the Jazz tended to panic in pressure situations and were uncomfortable in their role as favorites against Houston. The Jazz didn't know what it was like to be challenged, to face pressure, they said.
During one 11-minute stretch, the Jazz didn't make a single field goal. During their 14-point third-quarter performance, they looked like they were shooting a watermelon. How desperate were they? The Jazz started the fourth quarter with a lineup that consisted of Howard Eisley, Bryon Russell, Greg Ostertag, Antoine Carr and Shandon Anderson.
"It looked like we panicked - which is what they said we'd do," said Sloan with an ironic chuckle.
The Jazz spent more time complaining to officials than actually playing basketball, but they didn't lose because of the referees. They were outplayed in ever aspect of the game.
"We complained and moaned all night long," said Sloan. "If we got fouled, we felt sorry for ourselves."
The Jazz eventually cut the Rocket lead to eight points, but the rally seemed to die with five minutes remaining when Ostertag - the guy who was going to get a fresh start in the playoffs - missed two free throws.
And so here are the Rockets, up 1-0 in a five-game series after one road game. The Rockets are too old, all right, but they'll probably show up Saturday anyway.