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Sampson Fight Triggers Rockets Blowout
If nothing else, Ralph Sampson proved to be a versatile actor on the stage of the NBA Finals. In Game 1, he played the Fool, tossing misfired shots from all locations for the diversion of the Garden crowd. In Game 3, he appeared as Lazarus, rising from the dead by hitting several key baskets in the Rockets' first victory.
But his most dramatic guise was presented in Game 5, a Don King production. Sampson starred as Rebel Without A Cause in a game which featured an explosion of fisticuffs in what had been a rather cordial series.
Until the 9:40 juncture of the second period, the contest was a well-played if innocuous one, with the two teams competing evenly; Akeem Olajuwon had just reverse-jammed an offensive rebound to give Houston a 34-33 lead. At that point, however, a hockey game broke out.
As the Celtics set up offensively, Sampson came crashing down the lane and threw an elbow at Jerry Sichting. When Sichting, who will never be confused with the Great White Hope, spun around to confront the taller man, Sampson threw first one, then another wild punch, and the fight was on. Before the teams had retreated to neutral corners, Sampson and Dennis Johnson had scuffled, Bill Walton had wrestled Sampson to the ground, and the big guy from Virginia had been ejected by Jack Madden.
Although Johnson's left eye was bloodied by an Olajuwon fist, Sichting claimed no ill effects from the attack. "I only felt one (punch); I couldn't tell if it was a punch or a mosquito. My little brother has hit me harder," he said. Larry Bird joined Boston's postgame derision of Sampson by adding that "I can't believe he picked a fight with Sichting. Heck, my girlfriend could beat him up."
But by the end of the no-contest, the Celtics would become the biggest object of ridicule. Rather than fold after losing their taller Tower, the Rockets blew apart the visitors for the rest of the half, taking a 58-47 lead into the intermission and rolling to a 111-96 victory. The much-maligned Houston backcourt led the way, as Robert Reid dished out 13 assists in the half and Mitchell Wiggins contributed 14 points. Reserve Jim Petersen picked up the frontcourt slack with inspired defense and determined rebounding.
"They outhustled us from that point on," Greg Kite said in referring to The Incident. "They were all over the boards and all over the loose balls, and we kind of broke down. We went out of our patterns and what we usually try, and we tried to go too much one-on-one."
"That was the turning point," Boston coach K.C. Jones agreed. "Things got so bad, I didn't even have to coach in the second half. I could just sit and watch along with everyone else."
What Jones saw qualified as sufficient footage for the 1985-86 Celtics Lowlights Film. Bird, who hit his first five shots (including a successful three-point attempt) missed 7 of his final 8 (including a pitiful three-point attempt), and Robert Parish returned to his poor Game 3 form (1 for 8, 3 rebounds).
Meanwhile, the Rockets operated at will. Olajuwon (an effortless 32 points, 14 rebounds) & Co. ruled the glass, collecting 23 offensive boards to Boston's 10. The Green defense deteriorated to the point that Houston actually found itself in the midst of a three-on-none fast break in the fourth quarter.
The only group performing as miserably as the Celtics was the refereeing tandem of Madden and Hugh Evans. After Sampson's ejection, the two officials swallowed their whistles, as the Rockets were given carte blanche under their own basket.
But whether or not the zebras deliberately changed their stripes after the fight, the Celtics played badly enough to lose this game by themselves. "We were organized chaos," Jones said generously. Bird preferred to look ahead to the Garden and Sampson's next role. "I think Ralph will have a tough time in Boston," he said. "He better wear his hard hat."
- #05 (Walton)
- #08 (Wedman)
- #12 (Sichting)
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- Walton Gang (1977)