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1994: From Choke City to Clutch City

Looking back

By Dave Winder


Commissioner David Stern hands the championship trophy over to the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the series MVP.
CHOKE CITY.

A newspaper headline blared this new title for Houston after the Rockets blew a 20-point lead to the Phoenix Suns in the fourth quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals. It was the biggest blown fourth-quarter lead in the history of the NBA playoffs and came on the heels of the Rockets losing an 18-point lead in Game One, putting them down 0-2 to the Suns.

"We traveled directly to Phoenix after the game," Hakeem Olajuwon said. "That was a terrible flight. It was silent on the plane, as if somebody had died. Nobody was prepared for what had happened."

The Phoenix fans had their brooms out in full force as the teams took the court for Game Three, and after the first half, the Rockets looked as though they were about to be swept out of the playoffs as the Suns took a nine-point lead.

Then the Rockets put the ball in the hands of Vernon Maxwell and went into attack mode.

Maxwell responded with a Rockets' playoff record for points in a half with 31 as the team rolled up 77 second-half points to win 118-102. The Rockets ditched their "dump the ball into Olajuwon and have three players spot up for three-pointers" offense in favor of letting Maxwell, rookie Sam Cassell and Mario Elie drive to the basket on every possession.

"Penetration is just hard work," Olajuwon said. "Max, Elie and Cassell ... they were willing to work for the win. Anybody can settle for the outside jumper. We didn't take the easy way out."

In Game Four, the Rockets went back to Olajuwon, who scored a team-high 28 points, but it was the second-half play of Kenny Smith and Otis Thorpe that propelled Houston to a 107-96 win to even the series at 2-2. After the Suns cut the Rockets lead to 86-83, Thorpe responded with five straight points to bury the Phoenix rally. Smith then clinched the game for Houston with a three-pointer that gave him 17 second-half points. The Rockets had arrived in Phoenix labeled as chokers, only to return five days later to Clutch City, Texas.

Houston took Game Five 109-86 as Olajuwon and Thorpe each scored 20 points. Phoenix rebounded with a 103-89 win in Game Six to force a deciding Game Seven in Houston.

The Rockets held a 80-76 lead going into the fourth quarter when Olajuwon got hot, scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds in the final 12 minutes to finish with 37 points and 17 rebounds for the day. Cassell also came up big for the Rockets, hitting a clutch three-pointer with 4:51 to play as the 24-second clock expired to give him 22 points and seven assists for the game. Olajuwon scored seven of the Rockets last 11 points as Houston won 104-94 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1986.

"I'm grateful to be in this position," Olajuwon said. "Now we have new life, and I'm going to stay focused and enjoy the journey."

The next part of the journey brought the Utah Jazz to town. Olajuwon scored a game-high 31 points, followed by Smith with 27 points, and the Rockets rolled to a 100-88 win in Game One. During the following game, Olajuwon was presented with the NBA Most Valuable Player trophy, and left no doubt as to whom was the best player in the league with his game-high 41 points in the Rockets 104-99 win.

"I just shake my head with some of the shots he has made," Jazz center Felton Spencer said. "I did all I could. I had a hand in his face and he banks in a shot while falling down. All I can do is watch the highlight film and say, 'Well, I was on him.'"

The Jazz won Game Three 95-86, but the Rockets bounced back in Game Four to go up 3-1 in the series with a 80-78 win in a game best remembered for when the Utah clock operator forgot to do his job. With less than 30 seconds left, he watched the Jazz attempt to tie the score for almost 15 seconds without starting the game clock.

The Rockets were crowned Western Conference Champions two days later, winning 94-83 as Olajuwon and Robert Horry each scored 22 points.

"This was no coincidence," Smith said. "It shows me everything we accomplished during the season was for real. It's just a great feeling. This is what it's all about. I'm playing basketball in June and I'm going to the NBA Finals."

In the Finals, the Rockets would meet the rough and tough New York Knicks. "That's part of their game," Olajuwon said. "But to win a championship, you have to use all aspects of the game well: physical, mental, speed and finesse. All playoff games are physical."

In Game One, the Rockets matched the physical play of the Knicks every step of the way. Thorpe mixed it up with Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason under the boards for 16 rebounds while Olajuwon scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Rockets 85-78 victory.

New York's strategy of keeping a fresh defender on Olajuwon at all times helped them to a 91-83 win in Game Two as the Rockets center made only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

The series shifted back to The Big Apple for Game Three and Cassell came up big for the Rockets. Trailing 88-86 with 32 seconds left in the game, Cassell drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key to give Houston the lead. He then made four straight free throws in the final 22 seconds to give the Rockets a 93-89 win.

"I was out there doing my job," Cassell said. "The three-pointer was just another shot we needed. I hit it. It could have been any guy in that situation. It was a shot that we needed and fortunately I knocked it down."

The Knicks won Game Four 91-82 as Derek Harper scored 21 points. In Game Five, New York went up 3-2 in the series, with Patrick Ewing scoring a series-high 25 points in a 91-84 win. Competing for television coverage with Game Five of the Finals was a shocking car chase involving O.J. Simpson.

Unlike the rest of America, the Rockets had to put any distractions aside as they headed home to Houston with their backs to the wall. They needed two straight wins to capture the NBA title. "If we play five-on-five we can be champions," Rockets Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

Olajuwon made sure the Rockets would have an opportunity to play for the championship. With more than 40 seconds to play in Game Six and the Rockets protecting a 84-82 lead, Olajuwon stole a John Starks pass and was fouled by Ewing. Olajuwon calmly hit both free throws to give Houston an 86-82 lead. The Knicks came back with a basket and had an opportunity to win the game when Starks appeared open for a three-pointer from the corner, but Starks' shot never got close to the basket. Olajuwon blocked it into the waiting arms of Thorpe.

"We are going to Game Seven," Olajuwon said. "So close and so far. I'm going to take a little time tonight to digest this win, then watch the game on tape and start preparing. But after all of the time, all of the games, all of the years, this is the one game I've wanted to play."

Olajuwon scored 25 points to lead the Rockets to a 100-95 win and their first NBA title. He was also named Finals MVP and became the first player in NBA history to be named the league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and the Finals MVP in the same season.

"The team has worked hard all year for the honor of being champions and the team as a whole, as a unit, deserved the title," Olajuwon said.

So did Clutch City.

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