Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

38 Comments

  1. Blog-So-Hard says:

    Jeremy Lin ain’t Baron Davis

  2. Clutch City says:

    Good morning all you Rockets fans! So yesterday i made a mistake and I want to apologize. I am sorry for saying the Rockets would win by 15, instead they won by 10…..Go Rockets! On to Portland to try and make this series 3-3…Houston fans take this basketball very seriously….one game at a time…Remember people this is Clutch City and now Portland is in a very tough position. “Heart Of A Champion” is what Rudy T. said two decades ago and the Rockets showed last night that the furnace is still burning and that heart of a champion still beats. Go Rockets! #Rednation…..

  3. Blog-So-Hard says:

    Howard is flunking “Olajuwon 101″ and it is showing

  4. Don says:

    If it’s all in the mind, then I have to believe that the Rockets are in trouble cause Dwight Howard isn’t mentally-strong to begin. I didn’t think Houston would kick up too much dust this playoffs, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that Rockets are about to be eliminated in the opening round.

    I like Dwight Howard and James Harden, but both players could stand to look within themselves and understand they are part of the problem. Harden barely plays defense and Dwight should be beasting in the paint.

  5. okc2014 says:

    I want Houston to win this series but it’s just not looking good. I think Portland will take the series tonight. Too bad so sad.

  6. Hey Ron says:

    I have heard the same thing form Houston fans after game one, game two and game three, “it is going to be a blow out this time.”… please just stop. Even if Houston wins game five, they have to win two more. Nothing I have seen from the Rockets would warrant that Hypothesis, They are not playing lights out, they keep giving the ball away and they have a hard time defending any Blazer player ( 4 starters with 20+ points in game four). You can kiss it goodbye Houston.

  7. Realist2014 says:

    Attack the basket stop settling for jumpers. Throw it to Howard in the paint and let him establish himself early.

  8. This franchises plays its best when its do or die and every one doubts them. It doesn’t matter if Howard is not Hakeem Olajuwon. He doesn’t need to be him. Clutch city baby!

  9. Jonathan Cox says:

    Both teams are very skilled and they are both very evenly matched but the difference here is that Portland is not the Phoenix of Olajawon’s past and Howard is not him. The Blazers want this more than the Rockets do and they will get it.

  10. BlazerNATION says:

    Dwight’s mind is fragile. He will never be a champion along with Harden. Doesnt play d and is the best at flopping. GO BLAZERS

  11. lbjday says:

    James harden is a great player but hes the only guy getting 20+ shot attempts.chandler parsons did well in game 4 but he cooled off because he didnt get many touches.ease off of james…..houston has many other options…..make it rain from long range and feed dwight.

  12. lbjday says:

    Ok ok you guys nèèd to stop this nonsence ok.dwight has done his part.he has been a double double machine all season long.please do not come here talking when you haven’t even watched a single game.

  13. Rob says:

    I don’t really fancy the chances of the Rockets coming back in this series. Hakeem can do what he can to help but despite being the greatest big man the game has ever seen he can’t play it with them.

  14. phil atti says:

    Howard doesn’t have it in him this man is playing ball for over seven years now and he have not lean much he is why over paid THEY WILL NOT WIN! a lot of the games went in over time what’s this tell you

  15. eX says:

    Without mind’s game, keep Lin on the bench and rocket can win

  16. thespectator says:

    my moneys on LA and the blazers..rockets cant find an answer for them

  17. BIG DRU says:

    I agree, Randomguy!! There is a big difference between great players and good players. I believe the playoffs separate the great players from the good or average players. Rings don’t necessarily does so because Basketball is a team sport. No matter how much rings Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, or anyone else wins, they cannot and DID NOT do it by themselves, thus only puts you in the talk of greatness, but don’t solidify it.

  18. mee(a)t says:

    I don’t think the mind games can work in this situation. I haven’t watched the series a lot so I can’t say a lot but I’ve yet to find a solution to LA…plus Houston dont run a lot of plays…all I see is Iso and PnR with Howard.

  19. brusier brody says:

    Dwight aint no dream. Laters Houston!

  20. Nast says:

    Mind games are for smart peeps… SORRY DWIGHT!!! :P

  21. Skolimowski says:

    You are not going to win in the playoffs without defense, ok James Harden?

  22. Zacula says:

    Hakeem The Dream, one of the all-time greats, is naturally optimistic about his team and I respect that. But even a great one such as yourself Hakeem can’t teach Howard to be a true competitor…. Hakeem, did anyone need to teach you to have a heart? to compete regardless of circumstance (even while fasting!)? did anyone need to teach MJ, Bird, Magic, Kobe, Shaq, or Duncan? Nope, these greats, just like yourself, had it!

    Howard is just a big well-built horse with a bird’s brain at best. And it is an insult to greats like you to put this clown in the same category… at best Howard would belong in the Hall-of-Fame parking lot! This same time last year, the Rockets were in a much better position!

    Go Blazers!

    • NewYorker says:

      Oh please, I know it’s a long time before his career is over, but if nothing changes he should not be in the BHoF. He’s a very good player, that’s all. No shame in that.

  23. IDOL says:

    “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE HEART OF A CHAMPION”

    ROCKETS IN 7!

    • Joshua Greenfarb says:

      I remember when Rudy Tomjanovic (did I spell that correctly?) said that during their Championship runs in the 90s.

      But this current Rockets team is not the same as those 90s teams.

      I remember that playoff series when Houston lost the first 2 games (at home) and still managed to win the series. I remember Kenny Smith saying something like (in relation to envisioning possibly losing to Phoenix): I just couldn’t see it! You had the feeling Houston would come back in that series.

      Today’s Houston Rockets are a different story, unfortunately.

      A big reason is Dwight Howard will never be as great as Hakeem Olajuwon was. I mean, not even close. Part of it is because Dwight can’t shoot from the perimeter; Hakeem could score inside and outside.

      You know why Dwight Howard can guard LaMarcus Aldridge? Because he’s a PF like Aldridge. Yes, Howard can play C. Okay. But he is more a natural Power Forward.

      If Robin Lopez can guard Howard as much as possible (using his height advantage), Aldridge can keep focusing on scoring at will.

      Will Portland win this series? I can DEFINITELY see it.

  24. None Of The Above says:

    Reading this Hakeem would make a wonderful psychologist or motivational speaker. One problem though is that neither Dwight Howard or James Harden are even half the player Hakeem Olajuwon was skill wise or mentally. I don’t expect the Rockets to comeback and win this series. The Rockets may win game 5 but the Trailblazers finish it at home.

  25. abc says:

    how could you say that if a player has lost his mind? oh, never mind.

  26. Nothoward says:

    Dwight will just smile and be mediocre as always, he is not a GREAT player!

  27. hellon says:

    I agree,Harden still isn’t on that level and Howard…well,we all know how Howard handles pressure…Portland is advancing.

  28. Rednationguy says:

    If the Dream said it so then it is going to happen!

  29. randomguy says:

    The problem is, that is the attitude of the GREAT players of the game. Neither Harden nor Howard belong in that category. Harden is only a one way player and Howard has only shown brief glimpses of his true potential at the offensive end, cramming bonehead plays and disappearances on offense between dominant showings. At this stage in his career, I don’t think he can really step up his game to the next step. I expect the Blazers will win this series in 6.

    • Jolo says:

      I’m a rockets fan but I think the blazers will win in 5. The way McHale used his bench was awful.

    • Jay says:

      Don’t be shy to call it: Houston will lose Game 5 and as a result, McHale will lose his job – fair or not.

    • Clutch City says:

      True that Howard is not Hakeem and the basketball world knows this. But if you think for one moment Howard doesn’t have the heart to win you are wrong by a long shot. Also, Harden is a great player and he has shown it all season long with his scoring. These two guys can lead the rockets to a victory tonight. The problem is everyone thinks the Rockets have gave up and its funny because they haven’t. I remember when New York Knicks counted the Rockets out, they even had the cover of Sports Illustrated showing Houston as the losers. Guess what? New York didn’t get a ring that year because the Houston Rockets never give up. The pressure is on Portland and it will show from tip off till the end of the game. There is no doubt in my mind that the Rockets cant pull 3 games in a row, they got this in a bag like ruffles. This is and always will be Clutch City, the players and coaches are different but its still the Houston Rockets. Don’t look for another overtime game tonight because this one is a blow out…..Rockets by 15 or more. This is nothing new for Houston fans, this is how we get down!

      • Joshua Greenfarb says:

        I’ll tell you what: IF Houston can somehow come back and win in 7 games, then Indiana and OKC and do the same in 7 games in their series, respectively.

        But you get the feeling Houston is in too big a hole and Indiana’s Hibbert (or someone) must play much better.

        You get the feeling Indiana is capable of pulling it off (I don’t know if Atlanta’s Mike Scott can keep shooting 3s that well).

        You get the feeling OKC and pull it off if KD can shoot 50% from the field (like the regular season) and Russell can shoot at least (I don’t know) 40% from the field. If Russ made just TWO more field goals, OKC would’ve won Game 5. OKC just needs to be AT LEAST a little more efficient, and they’ll win Games 6 and 7, because Memphis can only handle so much.

    • NewYorker says:

      I will agree that Harden is overrated. He is a 1D player. Comparing him to D-Wade or other great shooting guards is not fair. Maybe one day. And D-Wade is not healthy anyway. In his prime I think he’s a top 3 SG all time.
      Also, Harden can’t handle the pressure very well it seems.

      • Don says:

        I liked how Harden carried the Rockets last season. But he was no where to be found during the Finals series against Miami Heat.

        And he had the nerves to ask for a max contract a few months later?

      • BIGMatta says:

        top 3 all time? You clearly need to do some more research on the greats buddy because you just dissed and dismissed a hell of a lot of em.