They are two teams on the same crowded platform. The Celtics still hold that 3-2 lead, but the Rockets are shoving, elbowing. "Boston has made a lot of good teams look bad in the Boston Garden," coach Bill Fitch warned, but his Rockets are no longer fretting over what the Celtics might do to them.
They seem to have forgotten what happened the last two games at the Garden. They are remembering Thursday night, 111 - 96 . "We're going to win the game the way we won last night," guard Robert Reid said before practice yesterday. "No tricks, no trick plays, no trying to go out and jump on one individual. (Jerry Sichting might question that statement.) We won't have the emotional lift from our fans, but we won't need the fans. The fans didn't push us to another level. We pushed ourselves. We initiated it from the beginning.
"I think we've found that eight to 10 minutes we've been looking for. I'm talking about those five- to six-minute periods when we wouldn't score and the Celtics would run away from us. We are minutes better. We've improved along the bench better.
"We came of age. We became a veteran team last night. We didn't make dumb mistakes. We played as a team. We looked for the next option. I've got a shot, but I've also got somebody open who's got a better shot. We more or less took a page out of the textbook from the Lakers and the Celtics."
Reid believes the next great rivalry was formed in the chaos of Thursday night. "Without a doubt, this Rockets team is going to be up for a while," he said. "We're going to want to have a lot of Western Conference banners up in our rafters. And if the Celtics are going to be the best team in the East, they're going to have to come down here and get by us."
Ralph Sampson and Reid agree the emotion of the second-quarter fight only added to a Rockets fury that began with the opening tap. They say they would have won without the incident, but it helped elevate their game to the necessary championship level. "We just came to win, to play hard," Sampson said. "Later on in life, we'll look at it and maybe we'll say we grew from it and we learned from it."
With one punch, the rivalry has swirled around Sampson. "I love it," he said. "It means a little bit more pressure, intensity. I can draw from that. I like it when people cuss me out, boo at me."
Told that Larry Bird had warned him to wear a hard hat into the Garden, Sampson said, "I've got a Puma baseball cap. That should work."
Clearly, the Rockets have changed from a team that last week seemed almost timid against Boston. Now they are a group anxious to forearm the Celtics against a wall. "I'm sure they took us lightly," Sampson said. "They were trying to get LA back. We weren't supposed to be in a championship series with the great Boston Celtics.
"They thought they were going to make it four straight and drink champagne and celebrate on the Houston Rockets' basketball court. It didn't happen. They came down here and thought it would be two more games and the series would be over."
He paused. "Welcome to Houston," he said.
"The attitude at practice today is that everybody knows why we're going to Boston," center Akeem Olajuwon said. "We're doing it to win a championship.
"Last night's game was very physical. We were going after the ball, pushing, not worrying about the foul. Earlier, we were crying to the refs. Yesterday we weren't crying to the refs. We are a lot better. We are confident. We know we can beat them. In Game 1 and Game 2, they say they cannot be beaten. We've shown them they can be beaten. I think the pressure is on them, too."
The Rockets point to the improved defense and rebounding that has enhanced their running game. Fitch likes what he's seen happen to his bench since the Game 2 massacre. "It's like anything else -- the more pressure situations they're placed in, the better they get. Being a young team and going through it five nights in a row . . . I'll tell you what it's like. Playing those five nights in a row for a player like Robert (Parish) or Larry (Bird) or Danny (Ainge) -- sooner or later, they'll get less from their time out there because they've already got the experience. They get better, but they only get better by degrees, where the young player gets better by leaps and bounds."
For all the Rockets' confidence, Reid does not believe the Celtics are hot and bothered. "They're saying, 'Bring the champagne up, we'll open it Sunday,' " Reid said. "We haven't done anything to rattle them. But we get them on Sunday, then let's see how they're thinking and talking."