Give the Houston Rockets some respect. Give them their place in history. Anyone who would deny that to the Rockets simply hadn't been paying attention.
"We had nonbelievers all along the way, and I have one thing to say to those nonbelievers: Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion," declared coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the supreme Rocketman who had been with the franchise as a player, scout, assistant coach, and now head coach for a quarter of a century, all the way back to 1970-71, when the uniforms read "San Diego" across the front.
The 1993-94 Rockets had proved that they could win the war of the trenches and outgrind the New York Knicks, averaging 86 points per game in the NBA Finals en route to their first championship. The 1994-95 Rockets, faced with more athletic rivals playing a faster brand of ball, rose to the challenge and again did what they had to do to win, this time scoring 114 points per contest against the Orlando Magic.
That's an amazing swing of 28 points per game from one Finals to the next -- by virtually the same team, no less. The Houston Rockets went out and reinvented themselves almost overnight in order to secure their place in hoops history.
"It's hard for me to put into words how I feel about this team," said Tomjanovich, his deep voice charged with emotion following the Rockets' four-game sweep of the Magic. "The character, the guts -- no team in the history of the league did what this team did."
Indeed, no team had ever stopped four 50-win teams en route to the title, as Houston did in overcoming the Utah Jazz (60-22), Phoenix Suns (59-23), San Antonio Spurs (62-20) and Orlando (57-25). No team ever beat the clubs with the four best regular-season records in the league in order to win the championship. No team ever won as many as nine road games in one year's playoffs, and no team ever won seven road games in a row. Houston did it all.
"Every team we beat could have won the championship," Tomjanovich said. "That's why I say this lack of respect has got to stop."
The Rockets were the champions who would not die. They survived a disappointing regular season that included a major trade, injuries, illness and some player turmoil, and went into the NBA Playoffs knowing that if they were to repeat as champions, they would have to do it the hard way -- on the road.
They fell behind the Utah Jazz two games to one, but then came back to win the best-of-five first-round series. In the next round they lost the first two games to the Phoenix Suns but again bounced back to win. The Rockets then beat the best of the West, defeating the Spurs, and the best of the East, mauling the Magic.
"All we wanted was a chance," said longtime assistant coach Carroll Dawson. "We thought that if we could just get into the playoffs, we could get better with every series."
That's just what the Rockets did, as they joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls as the only NBA franchises to successfully defend their titles.
In becoming the first team ever to defend a title with a sweep, the Rockets achieved a new measure of respect among basketball fans everywhere. That's what Houston's 1995 title chase was all about. Respect.
Respect for Hakeem Olajuwon, who somehow managed to place only fifth in NBA MVP balloting and who, despite a superhuman performance during the 1994 title run, never drew even a fraction of the commercial acclaim that went to some far less talented but more "colorful" rivals.
Respect for Clyde Drexler, one of the NBA's class acts for a dozen years, who as of the start of the 1995 NBA Finals had scored more playoff points than any active player but had never won a championship ring. It took a flight alongside his college teammate "Hakeem the Dream" for "Clyde the Glide" to achieve his title dream.
Respect for Tomjanovich, who is rarely mentioned when discussion turns to the NBA's top coaches -- but is there a better coach anywhere at getting the most from his players, who to a man seem eager to run through walls for him?
Respect for the "no-names" so vital to Houston's success: young players on the rise such as Robert Horry and Sam Cassell, who were just scratching the surface of their potential, and CBA veterans such as Mario Elie and late pickups Chucky Brown and Charles Jones, who were happy to be playing in the ultimate basketball showdown instead of struggling for survival in the minors.
And most of all, respect for the Rockets as a team, something many felt did not come their way in 1994-95, when many in the media dismissed Houston as merely the best of a mediocre lot, a one-year fluke that had been fortunate to win in a season lacking in strong teams.
"We did this as a team," said Kenny Smith, who teamed with Cassell to give the Rockets an impressive one-two point guard punch. "We stuck together and believed in ourselves. That's how we got here."
The road was not smooth, however. The Rockets were idling in midseason but were jump-started by the trade of Otis Thorpe, their model power forward, to the Portland Trail Blazers for the aging Drexler. Many, including several of the Rockets' own players, criticized the deal that sent away a solid rebounding frontcourtman and brought in return a 32-year-old guard best known for his offensive forays and never known for his defense.
But Drexler blended in smoothly with his new teammates, and especially with his former college teammate from Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" class, Olajuwon. Although the addition of Drexler forced the subtraction of Vernon Maxwell, who could not adapt to coming off the bench, by the time the playoffs started the Rockets were running on all burners.
The Rockets, seeded sixth among Western Conference teams, become the lowest-seeded team ever to win the title. (The 1969 Celtics were seeded fourth in the East.)
The Rockets also became the team with the lowest-ranking regular-season record to win a championship. Houston's 47-35 mark was only tied for 10th best during the 1994-95 regular season; the 1978 Washington Bullets' 44-38 record was eighth best in the league that year.
Houston set NBA playoff records by winning seven consecutive road games and nine road games overall. The Rockets became the first team to win an NBA championship without having the home-court advantage in any of its four playoff rounds. (Boston never had the home-court advantage in 1969 but only had to play three rounds).
Asked to compare the Rockets' two championship teams, Olajuwon said, "Last year's team was the best last year. This year's team had a bigger task. There were no easy teams. We had to play Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and now Orlando. We have paid our dues."
Indeed, as the Finals began, there was some sentiment that while Houston had paid its dues, the Magic hadn't. Many felt that Orlando simply hadn't suffered enough, hitting the draft lottery jackpot in consecutive years and vaulting to a place among the elite. Led by 23-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and 22-year-old Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, there seemed little doubt that Orlando was one of the NBA's teams of the future. But of the present?
There was no doubting Orlando's impressive starting five. O'Neal led the league in scoring and was being compared to Wilt Chamberlain as a physical force, which is the ultimate compliment. Hardaway was a model big point guard who could drive, post up, or shoot from outside. Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott provided dangerous outside shooting. And in the offseason the Magic had signed power forward Horace Grant, whose rebounding, defensive skills and timely scoring had helped the Chicago Bulls to three championship rings.
The Magic came out on fire in Game 1 and brought the crowd at Orlando Arena to a frenzy by building a lead of as many as 20 points in the second quarter. Hardaway was the catalyst, scoring with every weapon in his arsenal, but the playoff-tested Rockets refused to cave in. They cut the gap to 11 at halftime, then Smith nailed a Finals-record five treys in the third quarter as the Rockets outscored Orlando 37-19 to lead 87-80 going into the fourth quarter.
Next it was Orlando's turn to come back, and by the final minute the Magic were nursing a three-point lead. That's when Anderson left the door open for Houston by missing four consecutive free throws that could have all but clinched victory-two with 10.5 seconds remaining and two more after grabbing the offensive rebound.
"When you get to that point in a close game," said Magic coach Brian Hill, "all the little things jump up and bite you, and tonight for us it was free-throw shooting. We let one get away from us tonight. But you have to give Houston a lot of credit. They played a great second half and really made some big shots."
None was bigger than Smith's seventh three-pointer of the game, another Finals record. It came with 1.6 seconds left and sent the game into overtime at 110-110.
After Scott's trey with 5.5 seconds remaining knotted the score at 118-118, Drexler drove down the lane. O'Neal moved over and forced Drexler to lay the ball high off the backboard, but that opened the way for Olajuwon to get an inside position for a tip-in with :00.3 on the clock that brought a stunned hush to the O-rena.
The two teams of mad bombers obliterated all Finals three-point marks. The combined 25 made and 62 attempted three-pointers shattered the old records of 14 made and 37 attempted, while Houston's 14-for-32 shooting from the arc broke the single-team records of 10 made and 22 attempted.
The three-point shooting overshadowed some solid all-around games. For Orlando, O'Neal had 26 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists; Hardaway finished with 26 points; and Horace Grant had a solid 15 points and 16 rebounds. For Houston, Drexler matched Smith's 23 points and also had a team-high 11 rebounds in a strong performance, while Robert Horry came up big with 19 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
The Magic came out flat in Game 2, fell behind by 22 points at halftime and never recovered as Houston posted a 117-106 victory. It was the Rockets' seventh straight road win, breaking the record of six in one NBA playoff series set by Chicago in 1991, and Houston's ninth playoff road win overall, breaking the record of eight set by the 1981 Rockets.
The loss left the Magic in a deep hole. That hole became a crater two nights later in Houston when Horry's three-pointer with 14 seconds remaining nailed down a 106-103 victory for the Rockets in Game 3. Olajuwon had 31 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs, while Drexler had 25 points and 13 rebounds. They each had seven assists as well.
"I've said from the beginning that Hakeem is great and Hakeem carries their team," said Hill. "But right now their team is getting its energy from Clyde Drexler. Clyde is huge. And he has his mind made up that they are not going to lose."
Horry continued his fine all-around play with 20 points and nine rebounds, while Elie came through with 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field.
Three nights later in Game 4, with Elie keying an 11-2 fourth-quarter run, Houston pulled away from Orlando for a 113-101 victory and a series sweep. Just before the fireworks went off and the confetti fell from the ceiling at the Summit, Olajuwon closed out the scoring by uncharacteristically hitting a three-pointer from the right corner. He finished with 35 points and 15 rebounds and was unanimously voted NBA Finals MVP for the second year in a row, joining Michael Jordan as the only players ever to win the honor in consecutive years.
Asked whether the playoffs represented the best basketball of his career, Olajuwon typically turned the focus away from himself and onto his team.
"Yes, I agree, but I think it was because of this team, the style of play. We're playing team basketball, aggressive defense, hitting more outside shots which opened the floor and gave me more room to operate inside. And also, we played with more experience after what we had done last year."