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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Knicks vs. Rockets Final Will Be Ugly

Basketball fans like to think of their game as graceful, something that could be set to music, be it hip-hop, bebop or Carmen. In the 1980s, the world was seduced by artists such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, whose poise and dexterity made the sport global. They made it ballet. That was then. This is the age of the flagrant foul. The New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets will spend the next two weeks or so slugging it out for the world championship of basketball. They will hardly be doing pirouettes. Both are teams that only a mother or a devoted fan could love. If their games were set to music, it would be a funeral dirge, and as we head into the uncertainty of the National Basketball Association Finals starting Wednesday, we are sure of only one thing. It is going to be ugly. Both teams play hard-nosed, physical ball that relies on good defense -- as opposed to creative offense -- to pay dividends. As a result, this could be a series in which neither team breaks 90 points in a game. Total rebounds may outnumber total points. Ballet schmallet. So why care? Two good reasons, and they are both 2.13 meters tall. Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks have never met before in the NBA finals, but throughout their careers, debate has raged over who is the better center. Basketball aficionados consider Olajuwon better at everything except outside shooting. The numbers support this. In the NBA, the Rockets have beaten the Knicks 10 out of 16 times the two centers have played over the years, and Olajuwon has averaged 26.1 points, 3.1 blocks and 13.8 rebounds in those games, as opposed to Ewing's 21.9 points, 2.2 blocks and 9.4 rebounds. This year, Olajuwon averaged 33.5 points and 16.5 rebounds in the Rockets' two wins against the Knicks. Put more simply, Olajuwon has surer hands, quicker feet, and more physical power than Ewing. Ewing's only shining moment against his rival came in 1984, when his Georgetown team beat Olajuwon's Houston squad 84-75 in the NCAA college basketball championship game. The intangible side of the rivalry is that both players have suffered through years with rotten pro teams, and now both find themselves with the first real chance to prevail. In 1986, Olajuwon and the Rockets took on the Celtics -- who were 67-15 that year -- in the finals. Boston won easily. Ewing has never been this close before. In an interview with the Associated Press, Olajuwon tried to tone down the rivalry with Ewing. "The key is to not get caught up in the one-on-one competition," he said. "It's a team game, that's the issue." And position by position, the Rockets have a better team. Their backcourt is streaky, with bomber Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell shooting only 38 percent in the playoffs and Kenny Smith playing inconsistently at the point. Compared with the Knicks, though, they are the picture of reliability. John Starks still has not recovered from knee surgery and Derek Harper's wheels are getting rusty. Houston's frontcourt of Otis Thorpe and Robert Horry is just as tough as New York's Charles Oakley (who led the NBA with eight flagrant fouls this year) and Anthony Mason -- and Thorpe and Horry can actually play offense, too. The benches are about equal. In the end it all boils down to Ewing and Olajuwon, though, and whoever can provide the most bonecrushing defense. Sure, everything points to Houston, but if the Knicks can steal one in the Summit and then ride emotion in front of the zealots at Madison Square Garden, you never know. I do, though. Houston in six. An ugly six.