INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Shaquille O'Neal thinks the NBA's finest center will be playing at the Forum on Sunday.
No, he isn't thumping his chest. The player in question is Hakeem Olajuwon.
"He's a great player, he's still the best center in the league," O'Neal said as the Los Angeles Lakers prepared for the Houston Rockets in the opening playoff round. "He's always been the best center.
"Hakeem has a lot of moves on each block. Not too many big men can do that."
So, at 36 and in his 15th NBA season, Olajuwon is better than the 27-year-old O'Neal?
"Yeah," O'Neal replied. "Way better. I'm not in my prime yet. The system holds me back. I'm before my time."
Olajuwon led the Rockets to championships in 1994 and 1995, winning the NBA Finals MVP award both times.
He's the 11th-leading scorer and 13th-leading rebounder in NBA history and ranks sixth in steals.
Olajuwon knows he's going to have his hands full with O'Neal, too.
"What you see is the constant development each year," Olajuwon said. "He is more confident now, he's getting stronger and he's really coming into his own. I'll work (against O'Neal) from a team frame. I am more effective that way. I won't try to force anything."
Said rookie Houston guard Cuttino Mobley: "I love Shaq, he's a horse. It's unfair that he gets to play and have all those other players, too."
The Rockets and Lakers have many similarities entering their best-of-5 series, which starts with games at the Forum on Sunday and Tuesday night before moving to Houston.
For one thing, both completed the abbreviated regular season with 31-19 records. The Lakers, seeded fourth in the Western Conference, got home-court advantage by virtue of a 2-1 record against the Rockets, who are seeded fifth.
For another, both finished with winning streaks after losing six of eight games -- the Rockets won their last three games while the Lakers won their final four.
"We didn't play hard," O'Neal said. "Only a couple teams beat us. The rest of the games, we beat ourselves, not playing hard, not doing the little things.
"Now's a good time for us to be playing our best ball."
The last two Los Angeles losses were ugly -- 108-81 at San Antonio on April 24 and 102-80 at Houston two days later.
Houston, meanwhile, lost home games to lowly Dallas on April 21 and 29 during their slump.
"I think we can put any problems we had in the past," said Scottie Pippen, who helped the Chicago Bulls win six championships in the last eight seasons. "Once the playoffs start, it's another season.
"Being a veteran team as we are, we know how to play in the playoffs. We are going in on a high note. We know they will be a totally different atmosphere."
Each team has three high-profile players -- Olajuwon, Pippen and Charles Barkley on one side, and O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Glen Rice on the other.
"It's a big challenge, to go up against three of the best of all time," said the 20-year-old Bryant, who averaged 19.9 points a game this season. "You've got to pay attention to all of them."
The Rockets have the same task, and Rice served notice he's primed for the playoffs with a season-high 40-point performance in a 119-91 victory over Portland in the regular-season finale.
O'Neal was the NBA's second-leading scorer with a 26.3-point average and Rice averaged 17.5 points. For the Rockets, Olajuwon averaged 18.9 points, Barkley averaged 16.1, and Pippen averaged 14.5.
"It's 5-on-5, not 3-on-3," O'Neal said. "We certainly can't let all those (three) guys get off. We just have to play good team defense. We've got to scramble, we've scrambled pretty good these last few games."
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