Rockets - take them seriously

Odd heros seem to abound on the National Basketball Association roster of the Houston Rockets, who were runners-up to the World Champion Boston Celtics in last season's NBA playoffs.

For example, the Rockets have the dean of NBA players in Elvin Hayes; a backup guard, Calvin Murphy, who is three inches shorter than his mother; and a super center, Moses Malone, who came into pro basketball right out of high school.

The question is: how seriously do you take a team that finished two games under .500 during the 1980-81 regular season, then sprung playoff upsets against Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Kansas City?

The answer is: very seriously. In Malone the Houston franchise has the force many scouts regard as the best power center in the game. And probably its most valuable player.

Moses, seven years younger than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the previous NBA standard-bearer, is a much better rebounder and shot blocker, and is much more intimidating in heavy traffic.

''When there isn't much time left in a close game and we need a basket, we're invariably going to look for Malone,'' said Rockets' Coach Del Harris. ''He's our main man in that situation, because he always gets such good position inside.

''In fact, even if he doesn't make the shot, he's probably going to get his own rebound. At that point we're not trying to fool our opponent, we're just trying to get good execution and also make use of Malone's strength close to the basket.''

Working with Moses on Houston's front line are Hayes and small forward Robert Reid, who was the teams' No. 3 scorer last year after Malone and Murphy. Providing backup help for all three is Billy Paultz, who at 6 ft. 11 in. and 250 pounds is known chiefly for his rebounding and defense.

Hayes, who was the Rockets' top pick in the 1968 NBA draft, when the franchise was in San Diego, actually played only one of his first four pro seasons in Houston, where he had been tremendously popular as a college star.

At the start of the 1972-73 season, the Rockets traded him to the Baltimore (later Washington) Bullets. His best season as a pro probably was 1977-78, when Washington defeated Seattle four games to three in the NBA playoff finals.

Asked why Houston was so anxious to get Elvin back, considering his salary, lack of foot speed, and his approaching retirement (he is 36), Harris replied:

''When management and I sat down after last season to evaluate the Rockets, we felt our biggest need was a power forward who could shoot - someone the opposition couldn't ignore to help out elsewhere on defense. We saw a lot of that last year when Paultz started, and we didn't want that to happen again.

''Actually we had three players in mind - Mitch Kupchak, Maurice Lucas, and Hayes. I think any one of the three could have helped us, only the situation resolved itself when we decided we didn't want to get into a bidding war for Kupchak or Lucas, and Washington offered us Elvin for two second-round (draft) picks.

''With the kind of personnel I have on the Rockets, I don't plan to play anything except a power game, where you get people in close for the good shot and where you depend a lot on your rebounding. If we were a running team, we probably would never have considered Hayes. But the way we play the game, I plan on getting at least two more seasons out of Elvin, who is still able to get good position inside.''

Although Houston's backcourt isn't spectacular, it is steady. Mike Dunleavy and Tom Henderson both blend well as starters, and the 5 ft. 9 in. Murphy comes off the bench to provide instant offense with his deadly jump shots. Harris will also find almost as much playing time in his backcourt for Allen Leavell, who often is tough to defend.

Looking back on last year's 40-42 regular season record, Harris said: ''I don't know if we were a bad team, a good team, or a lucky team. I guess we'll never know. But we certainly got our act together in the playoffs. We came home with a lot of confidence after going all the way to the finals with Boston, and we're going to make that experience work for us this season.''

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