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100 Days of Hoops: Day 95

The Houston Rockets celebrate its second straight championship on the podium with the Larry O’Brien Trophy (Credit: CNN)

Coming off a 1994 Championship parade, the Houston Rockets cruised to a 9-0 start to the 1994-95 NBA season.  Expectations were beyond the stratosphere for the Rockets, even though the team was basically Hakeem Olajuwon and The Other Guys, the Rockets looked fresh as the season began.

Two months from the November opener flew by and the Rockets win some and lose some. There was no substantial winning or losing streak until January when Houston won six straight.  At this point, the Rockets were 20-9, and back they went to winning some games and losing others, playing .500 basketball for the next month.  There was something off about this team compared to last year; the role players are still serviceable but that’s all they were, it wasn’t enough to go back-to-back.  The Rockets management finally made a decision on Valentine’s Day.  Houston made the move to send Otis Thorpe and a first round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for former Houston Cougar Clyde Drexler.  Once again, Drexler and Olajuwon reunite from the days of Phi Slamma Jamma.

The Rockets won the first three games since they acquired Drexler, then lost two straight.  Then they come back to win three straight, then they falter and lose five straight but come back to win five straight.  However, since they traded for Drexler, Houston went 17-18 to finish the season.  The team was an enigma and its 47-35 was enough for the 6th seed in the Western Conference.

Houston went up against the Utah Jazz in round 1, which is best of five.  The Rockets and Jazz split the first two games and game three became a convincing win for the Jazz. Then the Rockets storm back in game 4 to take the series to the limit. In game 5, the Rockets were steady behind Drexler’s 31 and The Dream’s 33.  When it came to the fourth quarter and the Rockets led 92-90, the Rockets gave it to Clyde to send him to the free throw line to ice the game. Drexler squares up for his first…and misses it, igniting the Utah crowd.  They were getting louder by the second, Drexler went through his routine and nails the second.  93-90.  Stockton races up the court, less than seven seconds remaining, as he crosses half court he gets fouled by Kenny Smith.  This sends Stockton to the line since Utah is over the bonus.  Stockton makes the first and purposefully misses the second, hoping for an offensive rebound.  It was Drexler who secured the rebound with two seconds left and he was sent to the line once again.  This time Drexler doesn’t skip a beat, makes both and the Rockets were up four.  Stockton rushes down the court and throws up a half court shot, but it didn’t matter, the Rockets prevailed the rival Utah Jazz in five games.  Next up was the Phoenix Suns.

The Suns took the first two games of the 2nd round series and the Rockets took care of game 3, none of these games were particularly close but a game 4 featuring a 43 point game from Kevin Johnson and 26 from Charles Barkley put the Suns foot right on the Rockets throat.  The Rockets took care of business in game 5 on the road, with 31 from Olajuwon and 21 from Kenny Smith (only 4 for Drexler), the game went into overtime and the Rockets won by six.  In game 6, the Rockets comfortably beat Phoenix by 13.

The final minute of game 7 was a classic back-and-forth between the Suns and Rockets. Both teams showing a lot of ball movement and when Phoenix were up 1, Rockets guard Kenny Smith draws a foul with a little less than a minute remaining.  Smith makes them both and the Rockets led 110-109.  On the other end of the court, Kevin Johnson finds Charles Barkely, who loses his balance but kicks out to Dan Majerle for a wide open three-point attempt…Majerle misses the three but Barkley tips the rebound towards Johnson in the baseline corner, who resets the shot clock.  With 25 seconds remaining, Johnson drives towards the basket and draws a foul.  Johnson makes the first to tie the game but fails to give Phoenix the lead as he misses the second. Now 20 seconds remain as the Rockets inbound out of a time out, they inbound to Kenny Smith, Smith is immediately double teamed as the Suns use a trap.  Smith finds Robert Horry wide open by the half court line, Horry catches the ball, crosses the line and throws it to the corner. You may as well watch until the end of the video as it became sort of a free throw contest from this point on. (Credit YouTube user RetroBasketballHighlights)

Now, the Rockets had to go through the team with the MVP, the San Antonio Spurs.  Many basketball fans may remember this series as the one Olajuwon makes a statement to the NBA fans and media.  The Rockets edged out the Spurs by one in game 1 and were led by The Dream’s 41 points and 16 rebounds in a convincing game 2 victory. Oh and by the way, Spurs fans were lucky enough to see Robinson receive his MVP trophy before Game 2 began and while he did score 32 points, he was not the premiere story that night. The Spurs won the next two in Houston and the Rockets won game 5 at San Antonio.  All the road teams have won to this point in this series, until an impressive game 6 from Olajuwon and Robert Horry.  The Dream scored 39 in the series clincher with 17 rebounds and five blocks and Horry scored 22 along with seven rebounds.  The Rockets were back in the NBA Finals and the Orlando Magic had just beat the Indiana Pacers.  This was Orlando’s sixth season in the NBA and Houston’s second year in a row in the Finals.

 

95 finalsShaquille O’Neal squares up against Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1995 NBA Finals. (Credit: BallisLife.com)

The hype around the NBA Finals centered around two of the big men facing off, Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O’Neal.  In game 1, which is really all there is to talk about in this series, the Magic came out blazing.  The Magic loved to run and feed Shaq in the post and it worked every time but the Rockets were right there with them.  In the fourth quarter, the Rockets gave it to The Dream in the post, as he started his move, Olajuwon falls down trying to get past Shaq.  The referee calls a traveling violation, erupting the Orlando crowd.  In the final twenty seconds, Brian Shaw attempted a three-pointer and missed.  Luckily for Orlando, Penny Hardaway was there for the rebound and the ball moved around several times before the Rockets could get a hand on the Magic.  The ball ended up in Nick Anderson’s hands, who quickly tried to throw it away but it was too late, he had already been fouled.

At this point of Game 1, Anderson was 9/17 for 22 points and five assists. It was his first free throw attempts on the night.  Anderson misses them both but after a Houston player tips it in the air, Anderson gets it back and draws another foul.  A second chance for Anderson and one he wanted badly.  Anderson lines up for his third free throw and misses again.  As he missed, Anderson turns around in slight embarrassment, but he only needed to make one, this was his chance and he knows it.  Anderson smiles as he waits for the referee to pass him back the ball and the replay shows Penny Hardaway turning around as Anderson’s third free throw is in the air.  On his fourth attempt, he rushes through his free throw routine, leading to another miss.  Four straight misses and the Rockets recover.

Mario Ellie inbounds the ball to Kenny Smith with seven seconds remaining, Smith goes to the center of the three-point line and fakes a shot sending Hardaway to the air.  As the clock winds from three to two, Smith has to launch a three and makes it.  Now there are two seconds remaining and the Rockets have all the momentum.  The Magic gave the final possession to Dennis Scott but his shot was blocked by Robert Horry.  Game 1 was now going into overtime with Magic fans in doubt.

the jet for 3.jpgKenny Smith makes the game-tying three, at the time he set the record for most three-pointers in an NBA Finals game with seven. He still holds the NBA Finals record for most three-pointers in a half with six. (Credit: Sneakerhistory.com)

Robert Horry wasn’t done for the night, as he made the first six points of overtime from two three-pointers.  When Horry missed what would have been his third straight three-pointer, the Magic used the transition the other way and Penny Hardaway dunks the ball and gets fouled on a fast break.  The Magic weren’t done with two minutes remaining, but the Rockets were just getting started.  The Rockets were up three with about a minute remaining, Penny Hardaway attempts to dunk it over Hakeem Olajuwon but The Dream rejected Hardaway.  In the final ten seconds, the Magic tie the game from a Dennis Scott three-pointer, leading to the final moments of game 1. (Credit YouTube User The NBA Showtime).

The Rockets prevailed and the game was a microcosm of that NBA Finals.  It wasn’t that the Magic were bad, but the Rockets just played with more energy and determination.  The Rockets swept the Magic in four games and once again won the title at home. The 1995 Houston Rockets are still the lowest seed to ever win the NBA Finals, even if fans don’t see those Rockets as the underdogs, just realize that every team they matched up with during the playoff run won at least 57 games.

Because of the Rockets back-to-back championship runs, Houston was dubbed “Clutch City”.  Why Clutch City?  The Houston Chronicle would commonly mock Houston sports when the teams would lose, usually with the headline “Choke City” on the papers following a crushing defeat.  Clutch City became official after the Rockets beat the Phoenix Suns in 1994 NBA Playoffs after trailing 2-0.  The city’s nickname became that much more relevant as the Rockets blew away their opponents dreams.

 

After the NBA Finals Game 4 celebration, Ahmad Rashad asked head coach Rudy Tomjanovich how it feels to win back-to-back titles and what he has to say to anyone who doubted them.  Tomjanovich responded in what has now become a classic quote. (Credit to YouTube user Karol K).  The 1995 Houston Rockets playoff run is the most challenging road any team has ever faced to get to the NBA Finals, the fact that they swept Orlando in the Finals became that much more shocking.  The team was a machine once their backs were against the walls.  Their patience and attitude towards adversity earned them a memorable championship and a spot on our 100 Days of Hoops.

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