NBA playoff final is battle of titans. Surprising Houston has size to test Boston's vaunted front line

In the National Basketball Association's championship series, what you see is not what you expected to get. Boston and Los Angeles, the league superpowers, were the expected finalists, but the Houston Rockets cut in on the Lakers and arranged their own kind of ``Summit'' conference.

The best-of-seven finals, which began in Boston Monday, will eventually swing into The Summit, Houston's home arena, for Games 3, 4, and 5, before shifting back to Boston if necessary.

This development comes as a jolt to those who anticipated another glamour series between Celtics and Lakers, storied rivals who were considered near ``locks'' to turn this into a rubber match after battling to a title apiece the last two years (Boston winning in seven games in 1984, and L.A. in six last season).

Houston was supposedly a team of the future, an outfit still seeking the proper chemistry to mesh the talents of its young and potentially awesome Twin Towers -- Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.

The future arrived sooner than predicted, as the Rockets not only beat the defending champions, but embarrassed them by winning four straight games after losing the opener. L.A.'s esteemed Kareem (Mr. Abdul-Jabbar) ultimately had to take a back seat to Akeem the Dream, the seven-foot Nigerian who outscored, outrebounded, and rejected more shots than last season's playoff MVP. The 7-4 Sampson was a major contributor, too, and hit the series-clinching shot at the buzzer in Game 5.

Around Boston these developments were met with disappointment, mostly by fans who relished the thought of seeing another classic Lakers-Celtics battle, one rich in emotion and contrasts -- L.A. with its celebrity ticketholders, Laker Girls, and Fabulous Forum vs. Boston with its creaky Boston Garden, reverence for tradition, and no-frills approach.

If the Celtics inwardly burned to play the Lakers again, they have done a fairly good job of camouflaging their feelings.

Boston forward Kevin McHale confirmed that the Rockets legitimately belong in the finals after what they did to L.A. ``It's very seldom that a team has four bad games in a row,'' he said, implying that Houston withstood stretches of Laker brilliance and still prevailed.

``I think Houston will be there [as a top team] for a long time,'' added Larry Bird in assessing Boston's current opponent. ``They're finally learning how to win, learning what they can and can't do.''

Bird is particularly impressed with the way the Rockets go after the basketball. The Twin Towers are hardly immobile giants stationed near the basket. They run the floor as well as any big men in the game, and they are aggressive rebounders, shot blockers, and scorers.

Most teams are hard pressed to match up with the Sampson-Olajuwon duo, but Boston is better suited than any other club. The Celtics boast a pretty impressive skyline of their own, with two starting high-rises in 7-ft. center Robert Parish and McHale, whose long arms allow him to play taller than his 6-10. Joined by the 6-9 Bird, Boston has what is widely acknowledged to be the best front line in basketball.

When this wasn't enough to beat L.A. last year, though, the Celtics added one more weapon to the arsenal -- 6-11 Bill Walton, who was playing in relative obscurity with the Los Angeles Clippers after leading Portland to the 1977 NBA title. Walton has seen limited duty in recent years because of injuries, but he has emerged as the perfect trump card coming off the Celtic bench, a quality backup for Parish and recipient of the award presented to the league's best ``sixth man.''

Houston, while not generally as deep as Boston, can count on getting rebounding help from Rodney McCray and promising reserve Jim Petersen.

With so much tall timber causing gridlock near the hoop, Bird believes the team that most consistently hits its outside shots could win. Bird excels in this department, and gets assistance from the likes of Danny Ainge, and Dennis Johnson, while the Rockets counter with such rainbow-launchers as Lewis Lloyd and Robert Reid.

Reid is a holdover from the '81 Rockets squad, which lost to Boston 4-2 in the team's only other finals appearance. The coach of that Celtics team was Bill Fitch, who got the job in Houston after the men in green quit responding to his style of leadership.

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