In the Clutch
In a series characterized by gritty defensive play and clutch shooting, the Rockets proved they had the mettle to bring home the title
The NBA Finals have never gone eight games. Contests played in December don’t typically have much bearing on the outcome of the championship series in June, either. But the December 2, 1993 matchup between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks was the unofficial tipoff of the ’94 NBA Finals some six months early.
The Rockets, coming of a near miss in the ’93 playoffs, having stretched Seattle to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals, entered the ’93-94 campaign fired up. The fire would grow larger by the game, too, as Hakeem Olajuwon and company consumed their first 14 opponents, going undefeated in November.
Which brings us to Madison Square Garden. The Rockets traveled to New York looking to tie the NBA’s all-time record for wins to start a season at 15, but the hard-nosed Knicks were determined to halt history.
“There was a lot of talk before we got in there,” recalls Rockets GM Carroll Dawson, then an assistant coach. “They’ve got like 10 papers up there and every one of them read, ‘Not in our house.'”
“They were so intense to try and beat us,” adds former Rockets/current Spurs forward Robert Horry, who was only a month into his NBA career at the time. “They were like, ‘This is a playoff game. This might be a preview of the Finals.'”
Knicks guard John Starks put up 35 points in the preview, but it was Olajuwon’s 37 that led to Houston’s record-tying victory.
Sure, it was only one of 82 regular-season games. And the Knicks probably forgot the disappointment of that loss by the time The Finals arrived. It was a huge confidence boost for the Rockets, though, who went on to win 58 games and the Midwest Division.
That confidence built early helped Houston overcome an embarrassing collapse to Phoenix in the first two games of the Semis, turning “Choke City” into “Clutch City.” From there, Utah was dispatched in the Conference Finals, 4-1, and along the way Olajuwon picked up some hardware, as he was named both Defensive Player of the Year and League MVP.
The Knicks were no pushovers themselves. In fact, Pat Riley’s club was the one doing the pushing, banging and elbowing. New York was not the strongest team offensively, but it was as aggressive as they came on defense.
“Feisty,” describes current Clippers guard Sam Cassell, also a rookie on that Rockets’ squad, and now with Los Angeles. “Derek Harper, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Pat Ewing … they was tough,” recalls Cassell. “That’s the one thing I remember, that they didn’t deal an inch. Everything you got from them you had to earn.”
The truth is, every win in the series was well earned. The ’94 Finals, not the prettiest or most entertaining, was easily one of the hardest-fought, as all seven games were up for grabs in the closing minutes.
The eyes of the basketball world were focused on the League’s premier pivots, who were meeting for the first time in the postseason since Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas defeated Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars for the ’84 NCAA title.
The Dream served notice to the Knicks early that he was ready for the rematch, scoring 19 points in the first half. His Rockets teammates displayed a rustproof coat, as well, rolling from the get-go despite their eight-day break between rounds. But it was Houston’s defense that was the difference in Game 1.
The Knicks hung close, led by Ewing, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds. But their .341 shooting was not enough.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” Oakley said after the 85-78 loss. “It’s the playoffs and it’s time to step up and knock the shots down.”
The Knicks did just that in Game 2. The backcourt of Starks and Harper combined for 37 points, shooting 7-of-10 from three. None were bigger, though, than the trey Harper buried with two minutes left, giving New York a six-point lead and stealing homecourt with a 91-83 win.
“I think I’ve had several good games as a Knick this season,” said Harper, acquired midseason after an injury sidelined Doc Rivers, “but the magnitude of this game was so much more.”
Humbled by the home loss, the Rockets flew to New York for the series’ middle games hoping to return the favor. The Rockets took control early and held on for most of the night. The Knicks typically never gave up. Harper and Starks contributed 41 points, and Ewing put up 18 with 13 boards and seven blocks, including a big jumper with just under three minutes to play to give New York its first lead, 82-81. But the game belonged to the Rockets’ backup playmaker.
With his starting point guard, Kenny Smith, struggling in the series, Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich turned to Cassell, who turned in a heroic fourth-quarter performance. Down two with less than a minute, Olajuwon fought for position down low. Going right, he found Ewing. Spinning left, he found Ewing. Looking for help, he found the rookie out at the three-point line.
As if born on the big stage, Cassell calmly canned it, and then added four free throws down the stretch to seal the deal, 93-89.
“We didn’t really pay him any mind, because he hadn’t really done anything during the season,” admits Starks. “But he hit some big shots in that series, especially in that Game 3. He was fearless.”
Game 4 was all about rebounding and the Knicks nearly got all of them. Oakley, in particular, owned the glass, ignoring a sprained ankle to pull down 20 of New York’s 50 boards. Olajuwon scored 22 points in the second half for Houston, but none of his teammates scored more than 12 on the night, and the Knicks won, 91-82.
Game 5’s result was nearly identical. New York won again, 91-84, behind Ewing’s 25 and 12 and NBA Finals record-tying eight blocks.
The Garden was going crazy when a courtside camera caught an excited Charles Smith telling Rivers, “One win away!”
That one win would never come, however. It seems Houston found some additional motivation during their week in the Big Apple. In between Games 3 and 4, the New York Rangers had won the NHL Stanley Cup, and on the same day as Game 5, more than a million New Yorkers celebrated the hockey title in a ticker-tape parade through downtown Manhattan.
Although they headed home down 2-3, the Rockets were excited.
“I remember our players talking about it,” says Dawson. “Seeing New York going nuts over that Stanley Cup, I know that had an affect on our players. They kept thinking, ‘We’ve got to get this feeling in Houston.'”
The Rockets got some invaluable bench contributions in Game 6. Mario Elie and Carl Herrera shot a combined 8-of-8. But like he’d done all year, Olajuwon carried his club. Even with constant double-teams and an assortment of different defenders, Hakeem unloaded 30 points on the Knicks.
“He was the best player on the planet,” says Smith, now an NBA analyst for TNT. “Wide open shots, he didn’t feel comfortable taking. Hand in the face, two guys draped all over him, he relished those. Great players, they start becoming immune to what the defense does to them.”
As great as Olajuwon was, his greatest moment in the series came on the defensive end. If you saw that game, you probably remember Starks’ hot hand. The Knicks’ shooter was hitting everything. His 16 points in the fourth quarter kept New York alive. But 19 points would have won them the championship.
With seconds left and the Rockets up two, Starks got the pick from Ewing at the top of the arc. Driving past Hakeem, he pulled up for the game-winning three with just two ticks left. Only Olajuwon back-peddled fast enough to block the shot and save the day.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we would have lost that series if that ball had made it to the rim,” says Dawson. “Thank goodness Dream’s fingers are as long as they are.”
Game 7 wasn’t nearly as memorable. It was close for the most part, but Starks struggled horribly, shooting 2-of-18 as the Knicks searched for offense. The Rockets, meanwhile, played their typical team game. Olajuwon got his 25 and 10, while Vernon Maxwell added 21 points and Otis Thorpe collected nine rebounds.
The celebration and the falling confetti after the final horn, signaling the first championship in Rockets history, is still fresh in the minds and psyche of Houston fans 10 years later.
“What made it so special was the city of Houston had never won a sports championship,” sums up Smith. “I think the championship changed people’s thinking about their own city. It made them feel like their city had some significance that it hadn’t had before. The mentality of the people in the city was totally different just because a basketball team won an NBA Championship.”
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