Eddie Johnson's voice rose above the jubilant procession to the locker room.
"One more," he declared after Houston took a 2-1 lead over Utah in their best-of-five NBA playoff series. Wednesday's 89-85 victory in the Compaq Center moved the Rockets to within one win of becoming just the second No. 8 seed ever to advance past the first round."We're looking forward to the game Friday. Hopefully we can come out with the same intensity and same spirit we did tonight," Clyde Drexler said after numerous high-fives and congratulations from teammates and well-wishers.
"We'll be making history. I love challenges and I think this team loves challenges."
It got one in Game 3. So much so, in fact, that Drexler compared it to the 1995 NBA Finals when he earned his only championship ring.
"Absolutely," he said. "You've got the Western Conference finals teams playing each other in the first round and basically we're the same two teams, so there was a lot of intensity.
"We are very evenly matched," Drexler continued. "We enjoy playing them, but this year we seem to have the upper hand."
Say what? Utah entered the series with 21 more regular-season victories in 1997-98 (62-41) and a six-game overall winning streak over Houston. In addition, the Jazz had clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and were in prime position to dethrone two-time defending NBA champion Chicago.
Poof! Two losses to the Rockets have turned things around in a hurry. In a short series, the name of the game is survival.
And Houston forward Charles Barkley says the rabbit has got the gun.
"Let's see what happens," he said. "Let's see how the hunter reacts."
Reaction came slow in Game 3 as the Rockets roared to an early lead. Houston's first four field goals were three-pointers before the team began pushing the ball inside to center Hakeem Olajuwon. He finished with a game-high 28 points to go along with 12 rebounds.
"That's our bread and butter," Mario Elie said. "I wish (Hakeem) would take more shots, and I know he shot 26 times tonight."
That's correct. Olajuwon attempted 26 field goals in the pivotal game.
"Our plan tonight was to establish our inside game, and that is the key to our success," Olajuwon said. "Our outside shots feed off our inside play."
While combining both, Houston opened Game 3 with a 13-4 run. The Rockets, who later led by as many as 13 points, never trailed until the final 44 seconds when Utah held its only advantage, at 85-84, for less than seven ticks of the clock. Houston scored the game's final five points from the free throw line to regain the lead and put Utah in a do-or-die situation the rest of the series.
"We didn't get shaken," Brent Price said. "We came right back and made the big plays and made the big defensive stops."
Execution played a big role as Houston turned the ball over just eight times, as compared to 15 by Utah. Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich praised his team for sticking with their game plan.
"We did bend down the stretch," he said. "but we didn't break."
Olajuwon said Houston's maturity never allowed panic to set in. His teammates agreed.
"It was a total team effort," Elie said. "We hung in there."
In a game in which Utah shot 42.5 percent from the field and Houston just 40.3 percent, Drexler said the Rockets prevailed by excelling at the defensive end - particularly down the stretch.
Houston is now on the verge of joining the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets, who surprised top-seeded Seattle, as the biggest postseason surprises in NBA history. Not bad company for a Rockets team considered too old and too injury riddled to make a serious playoff run after a disappointing 41-41 regular season.
"I didn't hear any of that," Drexler said. "I think these are the same two teams (Jazz and Rockets) that were in the Western Conference finals last year and I don't think much has changed in our games."
The 1998 playoffs, however, are a different story altogether.
"They've been so terrific this year," Elie said. "Minnesota beat Seattle twice and we've just come out with a lot of heart."
Houston is now just one beat away from a second-round meeting with San Antonio.
Hold it right there, cautioned Elie. "This series is far from over."