Their Own Private Alamo

THE HOUSTON ROCKETS have a troika of 34-year-old superstars who have been waiting for the 1997 NBA Playoffs to begin since last August, when the uniquely gifted forward Charles Barkley came over in a trade with Phoenix, joining superlative guard Clyde "The Glide" Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the top two or three centers ever to play the game. Olajuwon has two championship rings; Drexler has one. Barkley is with the Rockets because he believes it offers him the best chance to be a champion before his aching back finally gives out. Houston went through the motions of a 57-win season, knowing it was merely a tune-up for the playoffs. They anticipate an eventual showdown with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals. Anything less will be a disappointment.

By contrast, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a trio of emerging stars--Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and Tom Gugliotta--aged 20, 20, and 27 years old, respectively. All of them probably tried harder and played better this year than at any point in their lives, leading the Wolves to more wins--40--than the franchise or any of them have experienced before in a single season. This week, they will participate in their first-ever playoff series, fulfilling a goal that felt like wishful thinking six months ago.

In other words, don't bet the milk money on Minnesota this week. On the other hand, lest Wolves' fans get too despondent, here are three legitimate reasons why their series with Houston could be more competitive than many people expect.

The sore knees of Mario Elie. Elie is Houston's unsung hero, a tenacious defender and clutch shooter who also passes well enough to rank second on the Rockets in total assists. He probably can't tolerate extended minutes at full capacity during this series.

Stephon Marbury vs. Matt Maloney at point guard. Marbury simply had the finest rookie season in Timberwolves' history. Supreme confidence, great body control, and one of the league's quickest crossover dribbles are his primary assets, and Maloney--a better-than-average rookie who is nevertheless the weak link in the starting lineup--is overmatched by them. But the real test for Marbury will be what happens after he blows by Maloney on his way to the basket. Olajuwon, Barkley, and Kevin Willis are all formidable shot-blockers, but Houston seems to have noticed that Marbury can be more of a threat dishing the ball to an open teammate--especially Dean Garrett--than finishing off the play himself. Yet Marbury has doggedly improved his play throughout the season, and provides Minnesota with its best matchup advantage.

Sam Mitchell coming off the bench in the fourth quarter. Mitchell? Mitchell is like Elie--a tough, wily competitor whose results are far more attractive than his form. Along with fellow vet Terry Porter, he is one of the few Wolves with extensive playoff experience. And his game is particularly well-suited to matchups with Houston. Defensively, Sam is versatile enough to bang down low with Barkley or go chase Elie around the perimeter. Offensively, he knows both Barkley and Willis prefer to gain rebounding position underneath rather than defend against his patented medium-range jump shot from the corner--he sank 23 of 39 attempts versus the Rockets this season.

The patterns of the two teams dovetail in Mitchell's favor. Early in the game, Houston's opponents almost inevitably double-cover Olajuwon, who responds by passing to the open three-point shooters. Later in the game, when opponents spread to defend the outside shooters and the opposing center is wearing down, the Rockets like to pound it in to Olajuwon, who often takes over. On the other hand, the Wolves are usually more competitive defensively when they go to a smaller front court of Gugliotta, Garnett, and Mitchell in the fourth quarter, mostly because the trio's quickness and intensity (and Mitchell's physicality) can change the tempo and wear down opponents. This was the defensive strategy that spearheaded the Wolves best extended play of the season, in late December.

In fact, given the long odds against Minnesota in this series, the Wolves might consider rotating their three big centers (Garrett, Cherokee Parks, and Stoyko Vrankovic) to bang on Olajuwon early in the game, then go with the smaller front line at crunch time--and put Garnett on Olajuwon. Sure, it would be a gamble, but KG's size, quickness, and defensive focus might be the Wolves' best bet against the most graceful and resourceful center in the league. Then all Minnesota would need is a way for Doug West, normally the Wolves' defensive stopper, to finally shackle Drexler, who gives him fits at shooting guard. And when West gets tired, there's Hollywood Robinson and his matador defense. Maybe Houston will lose one game in this series. And maybe they won't.

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