Houston took to the road to win the crown from No. 6 spot
POSTED: Apr 16, 2015 12:10 PM ET
Back in 1995, the Houston Rockets successfully navigated the most unlikely championship path in NBA history.
This is a time when the doubt starts creeping in. When the faces that have worn proud smiles for nearly a year become countenances that are cloaked in concern. When the eyes that have always found a way out of the most difficult of circumstances are filled with clouds of uncertainty. When the champion gets that uneasy feeling that a glorious reign is about to disintegrate into nothing but faded memories.
The defending champions are grumbling at calls, groaning at their own missed shots and shaking their heads in disbelief with just a tick over 10 minutes left in the game, and maybe the season, as Karl Malone hits another pair of free throws and Utah builds a seven-point lead.
This is a time when it is all about to slip right over the edge on the Rockets.
But this is a team that never was bound by knots they couldn't untie, never found themselves in a locked room from which there was no escape, plain and simply never hit bottom.
This is the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Houston Rockets going back-to-back, the most unlikely, unpredictable, unsinkable and irrepressible run to a championship in NBA history.
After going the distance to outlast the New York Knicks in Game 7 of The Finals a year earlier, the Rockets never found a spark or a rhythm to repeat all through the following 82-game schedule. The finished the regular season a middling 47-35. They entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
And then burned the house down.
The Rockets became the lowest seed in the history of the league to win a title, never having home-court advantage in any round. On the way, they defeated four teams -- the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic -- that had all won at least 57 games, the most difficult path to an NBA crown ever. They ran up an unprecedented string, dating back to 1994, of winning eight consecutive elimination games, including a pair of series-deciders at Utah and at Phoenix on the road.
"The reality is that you win one road game in any series and you've taken away home-court advantage," said guard Kenny Smith. "Think about it. If you're a championship-caliber team, you know how to win on the road. Our thought process was that it's just not that hard."
Except that in entire history of the NBA, they are the only team to do it. Dating back to the birth of the league in 1947, the 68 champions break down this way:
• 49 were No. 1 seeds.
• 10 were No. 2 seeds.
• 7 were No. 3 seeds.
• 1 was a No. 4 seed
• The Rockets.
In fact, there have only six other teams seeded No. 4 or lower to ever reach The Finals. The Rockets are the only team without home court in any round to win it all.
"Oh," said Smith. "Then I guess it is pretty hard."
It is precisely the task now facing the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who lost their regular season finale at New Orleans and now, as the No. 6 seed, will have to follow the path of the '95 Rockets and do it the hard way.
Like everyone else in our locker room, I had my hopes as the playoffs began. But it had been a long, tough season. We had many injuries to different guys. It really looked like it wouldn't happen for us again.
– Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon
"They never believed they were in any situation that was beyond their ability," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
"I've been thinking about OKC and San Antonio. I thought for most of the season if there was gonna be a time to do what we did, it would be now. You look at those teams, so loaded with players. All the injuries eventually caught up to OKC. But the Spurs, well, that's interesting."
At 55-27, the reigning champs have the best record ever of any No. 6 seed.
"San Antonio is a team that you cannot ever count them out," said Rockets Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. "Just because of the age of their main players and how the playoffs take a tough toll, it will be difficult. But I wouldn't be totally shocked if they win again.
"The Spurs won it last year and it is the same team coming back. So they have veterans who know what it takes. They have never been intimidated by road games or close games or being behind in games.
"The were times at the start of those season when the Spurs struggled. Still the playoffs are a whole different game. All that matters with them is like us in '95. They're in. They're not gonna have the home-court advantage like they did last year. But when you have won before, see the bigger picture. So San Antonio, you can't count them out."
It was a shortage of big guns that finally pushed the '95 Rockets to make their blockbuster -- and controversial at the time -- late-season trade to ship power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for Drexler and Tracy Murray.
"Honestly, I hated to do it," said Tomjanovich. "I believed those guys deserved a chance to defend their title. I felt we owed it to them.
"But it got to a point where it became obvious it wasn't happening and the truth is we would only have made a trade for one guy. That was Clyde. He was so attractive. There were the different factors that could make it work that were special. He was coming back to his hometown. He would be playing with his old friend and college teammate in Olajuwon. They would be able to work together.
"It had nothing to do with Otis. I liked him a great, great deal. He was maybe the one guy on the team that I spent time with. Otis and I had spent time golfing, even a couple of beers. It wasn't that I disliked him. Not at all. It was for the team. Clyde was such a prize.
"My principles were really being tested on this deal. When we finally did pull the trigger, I was surprised to see how many coaches were openly commenting on another team's trade. People were saying that it was fundamentally the wrong thing. Breaking up a championship team. Trading a big for a small.
"Honestly, I was shocked at the criticism. But we really believed. We were very one dimensional with just Hakeem as a primary scorer. He was the focal point of system and we didn't have another threat. If only we could find another primary scorer and get him the ball and let him take over games when necessary and make passes and defensive plays at other times. That was Clyde. He was actually better than expected and we expected a lot."
The defending champs were on the ropes in the deciding game of the best-of-five first-round series at Salt Lake City, still down with just by seven points with just under 10 minutes to play.
But Drexler just wouldn't let it happen.
Clyde the Glide went to the boards like a giant vacuum cleaner and sucked up every rebound at the defensive end. He jumped into the passing lanes as if a pickpocket working a crowded room and came away with steals. He fed the ball down into the low post so that Olajuwon can go to work. He stepped up to the foul line and hit clutch free throws even when the floor was vibrating and the air so close from the roaring crowd jammed.
This was why you make the trade.
"Like everyone else in our locker room, I had my hopes as the playoffs began," Olajuwon said. "But it had been a long, tough season. We had many injuries to different guys. It really looked like it wouldn't happen for us again.
"Then we beat Utah and I believed. Karl Malone, John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan and that whole team. They won 60 that season. They were for real. They were a championship-level team. So when we beat them, I thought, well, anything is possible."
They were a collection of satellites that primarily orbited around Olajuwon and relied on his splendid athletic skills at both ends of the court as their foundation. Drexler provided the wisdom of a 12-year NBA veteran and still had the breakout talent and drive to take over games single-handedly.
But even more than in their first trip through the drive-to-the-championship meat grinder, the Rockets bench and locker room were filled with fearlessly self-confident individuals who would take any shot or make any play in any situation.
Forward Robert Horry has openly talked about adopting an "anything goes" attitude from the previous season, when he'd been briefly traded to Detroit. But the trade was nullified when Sean Elliott could not pass a Rockets physical. Horry returned to Houston bolder and unencumbered.
"I told myself I would never care, never give a damn about missing a shot again," Horry said. "I learned about the NBA business. I learned that it was just a game out on the court. I learned that all I could do was play. Whatever happens, happens.
"Funny thing is, I think there were a lot more guys like that on our team than I realized. I guess that's what you need when you're trying to do what we were trying to do from the sixth seed. Home court? Who cares?"
The year before the Rockets held the advantage in the second round on the Suns, but dropped the first two games at home -- including blowing fourth quarter leads of 18 and 20 points -- and then crawled historically out of the 0-2 hole, giving birth to the label of "Choke City" followed by their resurrecting battle cry of "Clutch City."
"OK, 20 years later I'll tell you," said guard Mario Elie. "We choked. We did choke. But without that experience, we don't come back to win the championship in 1994 and nothing that happened the next year would have been possible. Choke City made us who we were."
In 1995, the Rockets fell behind 3-1 to Phoenix in the West semifinals and perched themselves on the edge of elimination for three straight games.
Back on the road for Game 5, the Rockets arrived at the arena to find Drexler ill and dehydrated, stretched out on a table in the trainer's room getting IV fluid.
"I know you're gonna think I'm crazy, but I swear this is true," Smith said. "When Sam Cassell and I walked into the locker room that night and saw Clyde just lying there with a needle in his arm, we started slapping and high-fiving each other.
As soon as Robert made the pass, I remember Danny Ainge dropping off me to double-team on Dream ... I thought, 'We'll show you.' I knew it was good the second it left my hand."
– Rockets guard Mario Elie
"It's not that we weren't concerned for Clyde. But all we were thinking about was 'We get to play together tonight. More shots for us. Which one of us gets to play the hero?'
"Man, that's just the way we were, every one of us. Everybody was waiting for that moment. We were all salivating to make the play, praying that it was you that got the ball. We knew from the plays Rudy drew up and the spacing in our offense, where the ball would end up going at the end of the game. We'd all be walking out of the huddle arguing over who would go to that spot.
"I'm telling you, I'm getting chills just thinking back and talking about this. But we were different. You had a collection of guys that didn't know better."
It was the Rockets' "Willis Reed moment." The ailing Drexler managed to gut out 32 minutes. Though he didn't score a point, he was emotional spark that lit their flame in a dramatic overtime win.
A year earlier Olajuwon had sat in the same Phoenix locker room prior to Game 6, making the case that all the pressure was on the Suns to close the series out at home, because Game 7 was in Houston and everybody knows the home team always wins that one. Now 12 months later he was back in the same spot, telling the same listener that the Rockets were in the driver's seat for Game 7 at Phoenix "because the pressure is always on the home team."
"We were like that," said Smith,"playing mind games, mental gymnastics with ourselves."
"You tell yourself whatever is necessary," says Olajuwon now, with a sheepish laugh..
It was then most fitting that the single biggest shot in franchise history would be made by the ferocious defensive specialist Elie.
The Rockets down two when Horry swung a long cross-court pass to Elie, spotted up in the left corner. He loaded, he measured and he nailed his only 3-pointer of the game, then blew the famous "kiss-of-death" to old friend Joe Kleine, sitting in disbelief on the Suns bench.
"As soon as Robert made the pass, I remember Danny Ainge dropping off me to double-team on Dream, just the way he dropped off on Horace Grant (in 1993) and gave John Paxson that shot that won the championship for Chicago," Elie said. "I thought, 'I can't believe you're doing this again. Well, I'll show you.' I knew it was good the second it left my hand."
It sent them to San Antonio for the Western Conference finals against a Spurs team that had won a league-best 62 games and the Rockets won the opener on a late jumper by Horry.
Game 2 is the one that lingers and it shown over and over on highlight reels. It was the night that commissioner David Stern was on hand to present the 1995 MVP award to the Spurs' David Robinson, the trophy that Olajuwon had won a year earlier and the honor that his teammates believed still belonged to their man.
To win a championship takes so much. We beat four great teams. To live through all those elimination games, that changes you permanently.
– Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich
"They sort owned us all season," said Tomjanovich. "They felt they had our number. Then there was that MVP ceremony and this is how I see it in my mind's eye: I see them presenting that trophy to David Robinson. I had to look right through Hakeem, who was standing in my line of vision. My thought was: 'I wonder how he feels about that?' It wasn't a big thing. Just, 'I wonder what's going through his mind right now?' Then we found out."
It was graceful, powerful, dominating, finesse, all at the same time. It was breathtaking, like getting to sit inside the eye of a hurricane and watching the world swirl past. Olajuwon slammed home dunks and dropped in feathery jumpers. He used double and triple spins and head-fakes that tied Robinson into a pretzel knot. He scored 41 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and bamboozled one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in casting his own personal MVP vote.
"In a lot of ways it was the most impressive basketball game that I've ever seen anybody play," Cassell said. "Dream was unstoppable. He was on a different planet. Remember who he was doing it against. David Robinson was no chump. They just gave him the MVP trophy."
The Rockets defeated the Spurs in six games.
The Finals brought an Orlando team bursting with the young talent of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in ascendancy and a Magic team, playing the series opener at home, led by 20 in the second quarter and by three points with 10.5 seconds left in the game.
Then Nick Anderson infamously missed four straight free throws to leave the door open a crack. In strode Smith — maker of seven 3-pointers on the night — to hit the biggest shot of his career to force a tie and the Rockets won in overtime.
Olajuwon took a young, awestruck and deferential O'Neal to school, Drexler toyed with the Magic. After wriggling off the hook in the opener, the Rockets swept the series 4-0 to wrap up their back-to-back and the most improbable title in NBA history.
When it was over and he stood at mid-court with the confetti raining down, Tomjanovich finally delivered the message to the doubters that had built up inside all of them:
"Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion!"
It was part-testimony, part-scold that grew out of a comment made earlier in the season by the Suns' Kevin Johnson.
"He said: 'those guys have messed this up so much, they might not even make the playoffs.'
"Yeah, I was talking to the nonbelievers, the people who weren't with us on the ride the year before in '94 and didn't know what we had in that locker room. To win a championship takes so much. We beat four great teams. To live through all those elimination games, that changes you permanently.
"So I look at the Spurs this year and where they were in the first half of the season and saw people writing them off again and I knew personally how wrong they could be."
The '95 Rockets defeated Utah (60 wins), Phoenix (59), San Antonio (62) and Orlando (57), the toughest gantlet ever run to an NBA title.
BOX SCORE: Rockets vs. Magic, Game 4, 1995 Finals
Yet there is looming shadow of the Bulls. Michael Jordan had gone off to chase his baseball fantasy while the Rockets were winning their first title and returned in late March of 1995, only a month before the playoffs and Chicago was beaten in the East Finals by Orlando.
"When I hear the stuff about Michael not being there, I say, 'Hey, we went through Hall of Fame players, everybody they put in front of us," Tomjanovich said.
"Yes, I wish Michael was there. We were ready for anybody. I got a chance to talk to Michael at Charles Barkley's house a few years ago. Michael said, in that era, he always thought we were a big threat to them."
During Chicago's first "three-peat" from 1991-93, the numbers show the Rockets were 5-1 against the Bulls.
The loose cannon Vernon Maxwell was never the least bit intimidated by the aura or the legend. In fact, he looked forward to the challenge of guarding and even trash-talked Jordan.
On Dec. 11, 1992, after the Rockets had gone into noisy old Chicago Stadium and hammered his team 110-96, Jordan sat at his locker long after the game, shook his head and said: "It's a good thing those guys can't ever get out of the West, because we have no answer for that monster in the middle."
It's the unanswered question, the debate that goes on 20 years later and simply makes a Hall of Fame center shrug.
"I didn't tell him to play baseball," Olajuwon said. "We were there. No excuses. We took the hard path, doing it all on the road."
Twenty years later, still the solitary travelers.
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