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1986: Tough to the Finish

Looking back

By Dave Winder


The Rockets' Rodney McCray had an instrumental assist in the Western Conference Finals, but the Celtics took the NBA title.
THE ROCKETS STARTED THE YEAR with John Lucas at the point; however, 65 games into the season, Lucas left the team. Allen Leavell replaced Lucas and averaged more than 17 points per contest in 12 games before breaking his wrist. For playmaker No. 3, Rockets Head Coach Bill Fitch looked to his bench and inserted Robert Reid into the starting lineup.

Critics thought the Rockets' lack of point guard depth would hurt them against the guard-oriented teams of the Western Conference. A little more than a month later, Houston was playing the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

In the first round the Sacramento Kings could not find an answer for the "Twin Towers" of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Olajuwon and Sampson scored at will while holding the Kings' top inside players to a combined 52 points in a three-game sweep.

In the Western Conference Semifinals, the Rockets prevailed over the Denver Nuggets 4-2 with a 126-122 win in double overtime in Game Six. Houston played the last 6:40 of the game without Sampson because of a foul out and Olajuwon because of an ejection.

The win set up a showdown in the Western Conference Finals with the Lakers. Most Los Angeles players already had their bags packed for the NBA Finals after going up 1-0 with a 119-107 win.

"Robert's done a real good job for them, but they don't have a real point guard," Lakers guard Michael Cooper said. "I think that's going to work to our advantage the entire series."

It worked to the Lakers' advantage for that one game. The Rockets were able to regroup and win the next three games behind Reid's passing, Olajuwon's scoring and a team defense that shut down the Lakers' high scoring attack.

In Game Five Olajuwon scored 30 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and blocked four shots before being ejected in the fourth quarter for fighting.

A Byron Scott jumper could have given the Lakers the win, but his shot was long and Leavell grabbed the rebound and called timeout with one second remaining on the clock.

Sampson demanded the ball as the Rockets gathered around to see which play Fitch would draw up for the last-second shot. Fitch stationed Rodney McCray at midcourt and called for a lob pass to Sampson. As the Rockets walked out of the huddle, Sampson told McCray to inbound the ball as high as he could. "He told me not to worry about the pass," McCray said. "He said that he would go and get it." When Sampson caught the ball in midair, he had his back to the basket and there was no time to square up for the shot or to even come down. Instead, he corkscrewed his body to get a glimpse of the basket and gently released the ball over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The shot hit the rim, bounced in and the Rockets were on their way to the NBA Finals.

"We're going to Boston with confidence," Sampson said. "We are not just happy to be going there. We're going there intent on winning the series."

The Celtics were intent on winning the series, also. Boston won the opener 112-100 and then followed with a 117-95 blowout victory in Game Two. The Rockets rebounded with a 106-104 win in Game Three, but their quest to even the series at 2-2 ended with a late tip-in by Bill Walton, which gave the Celtics a 106-103 victory.

In Game Five, the Rockets came out fighting for their playoff lives - literally. Early in the second quarter, with Houston holding a 34-33 advantage, Sampson broke free of a Jerry Sichting hold and punched the Celtics guard twice. Sampson then leveled Boston point guard Dennis Johnson as both benches cleared. When the smoke cleared, Sampson was ejected for fighting.

The Rockets used the scuffle as an emotional lift, going on a 24-14 run as the fans chanted, "We want Ralph" until halftime. The Rockets then rolled to a 111-96 win to send the series back to Boston.

In Game Six, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale each scored 29 points as Boston won the NBA title with a 114-97 win.

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