Twenty years ago, the Houston Rockets joined an exclusive NBA club when they won their second consecutive NBA title. Eventual Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon went from being just a great player to one an all-time great in helping lead the Rockets to back-to-back titles. They also can claim they are the first of the three Texas teams in the NBA to become champions first ahead of their Southwest Division Rivals the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. This past Thursday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, TX, the Rockets took their fans back down memory lane and the Rockets current best player in All-Star James Harden had a historic evening.
In the Rockets (46-22) 118-108 victory versus the Denver Nuggets (26-44) this past Thursday night, their third win in a row, Harden scored a career-high 50 points going 12 for 27 from the field and 22 for 25 from the free throw line. He also had 10 rebounds and four assists.
It was the first 50-plus point performance since the aforementioned Olajuwon scored 51 points going 20 for 37 from the field and 11 for 14 from the charity stripe, grabbing 14 boards, three steals and two block shots, but the Rockets lost versus the Boston Celtics 108-106.
On top of that Harden became the ninth player in Rockets history to score 50 points or more in a regular season game and the four Rocket in team history compile 50-plus points and 10-plus boards in a regular season game in Rockets history. Olajuwon and fellow Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes each accomplish that feat twice in their Rocket careers. Harden also became the first player in the league to achieve those stats since Miami Heat All-Star guard and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade did it on Mar. 14, 2009, when he had 50 points, 10 boards, nine assists, four steals and two blocks in leading the Heat to a 140-129 victory versus the Utah Jazz in triple-overtime.
“It’s a blessing. All the glory to God,” Harden said to the NBATV’s Jared Greenberg and Dennis Scott after the game on Thursday.
“Credit my teammates and coaches. They did an unbelievable job as they do every single night. Getting me in positions to be successful. I got some shots to fall tonight and I was just in attack mode all night.”
Harden had this great performance on a night when the Rockets celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the team’s back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, with public address announcer during those two season Matt Thomas as the master of ceremony.
The celebration consisted of former players, coaches, front office personnel and the television and radio broadcasters from those back-to-back title teams. Also on hand was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Among the players that were in attendance along with Olajuwon were his former “Phi Slama Jama” college teammate from his days with the Houston Cougars Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who the Rockets traded for along with sharp shooter Tracy Murray in the middle of the 1994-95 season for Otis Thorpe who was also in attendance.
Other former players that were honored were sharp shooter Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, Eric Riley, Earl Cureton, Tim Breaux, Chris Jent, Charles Jones, Pete Chilcutt and Matt Bullard.
Two key players that were not on hand for the festivities, but were major cogs in the Rockets back-to-back titles were starting lead guard Kenny Smith, who is now busy with Turner Sports coverage of the NCAA Tournament and his understudy Sam Cassell, who is an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Along with honoring former players, the Rockets also honored the coaching staff and key members of the front office from those title teams like head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the franchise leader in regular season victories with 503 and playoff wins with 90; assistant coaches “Mr. Mean” Larry Smith, Bill Berry, Carroll Dawson and Jim Boylen, who was also the video coordinator; General Manager Bob Weinhauer; head trainer Ray Melchiorre; player scout Joe Ash and directory of player development Robert Barr.
The Rockets also honored the radio and television broadcasters during those seasons. Gene Peterson, the radio play-by-play announcer whose famous line was “How sweet it is!” and his partner color analyst Jim Foley. The Spanish broadcast radio broadcast team of Danny Gonzalez and Alex Lopez Negrete were also on hand as well as the television broadcast duo of play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell and color analyst Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy.
Like any journey to height professional sports lure, there are many highs and many obstacles to overcome in reaching the mountain top of any professional sport.
For the Rockets, their championship journey began one year prior when they won then a franchise record 55 games and capturing their first then Midwest Division title since the 1985-86 season. They defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in five games, their first playoff series win 1987. Their season ended at the hands of the eventual Western Conference runner-up in the Seattle Supersonics in seven games.
The next season, the Rockets won 58 games in capturing their second straight division title, a first in team history. Olajuwon was named the Most Valuable Player and the Defensive Player of the Year.
As the No. 2 Seed in the West, the Rockets defeated the No. 7 Seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round 3-1.
In the Conference Semifinals against Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and the No. 3 Seeded Phoenix Suns, the Rockets had big leads in Games 1 and 2 at home, but lost both games and were staring at a four-game sweep. They starred that painful possibility and never blinked winning Games 3 118-102 behind the 34 points Maxwell and the 26 points, 15 boards, six assists and six blocks from Olajuwon, who led the way in Game 4 with 28 points, 12 boards, eight assists and five blocks as the Rockets won in Phoenix 107-96 to even the series at 2-2. The teams split the next two games and the Rockets won Game 7 104-94 on their home floor to send the defending Western Conference champs home 4-3. Olajuwon had 37 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in the clincher. Cassell was big off the bench with 22 points and seven assists.
In the West Finals, the Rockets made short work of the Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Jazz defeating them in five games.
In The Finals, the Rockets faced the rough and tumble Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks.
After splitting the first four games, the Knicks took care of things at home capturing Game 5 91-84 leaving them one game away from their first title since 1973.
In the closing moments of Game 6 though leading 86-84, Knicks’ guards John Starks, who had scored 27 points had his game-winning three-point shot blocked by Olajuwon preserving the win and evening the series up at 3-3. Olajuwon finished with 30 points, 10 boards and four blocks.
In Game 7, Olajuwon led the way with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in leading the Rockets to a 90-84 win capturing the city of Houston’s first pro sports title since the Houston Oilers of the American Football League won it all in 1961.
Olajuwon, who averaged 26.9 points. 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 3.9 blocks in the seven game on 50.0 percent from the floor was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1994 Finals and he became the only player in league history to win the regular-season MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He also became the first NBA player not born in the United States to win league MVP.
The next season was not as impressive for the defending champion Rockets as injuries and inconsistency limited them to just 47 wins and the No. 6 Seed in the West.
Even with the acquisition of Drexler as mentioned earlier, many thought that the Rockets chances of repeating were very slim, especially without having home court advantage.
All the Rockets did in the 1995 NBA Playoffs was go out and win, defeating the arch rival Jazz, who finished 60-22 that season in the opening round in five games.
For the second year in a row, the Rockets met Barkley, Johnson and the Suns, who won 57 games that year in the West Semis and once again had the Rockets behind the eight ball winning three of the first four games.
While many thought the Rockets would fold, they rose to the occasion and won Game 5 in Phoenix 103-97 in overtime led by the 31 points and 16 boards of Olajuwon. Smith had 21 points, hitting 5 for 11 from three-point range to go along with seven boards and seven assists. Elie had 15 off the bench as well as forward Chucky Brown and Horry had 11 points and 11 rebounds and five assists.
The Rockets dominated the Suns in Game 6, winning 116-103 to even the series 3-3.
In the closing moments of Game 7, Elie got open in the corner and knocked down a three-pointer, which gave the Rockets the lead and eventually the victory 115-114, taking the series 4-3. For an exclamation point, Elie blew a kiss to the Suns’ bench as he was greeted by his Rocket teammates.
In the Western Conference Finals against the West top Seed the San Antonio Spurs, who won a franchise record 62 games and league MVP and Hall of Famer David Robinson, Olajuwon put on one of the best displays in NBA history.
Olajuwon outplayed Robinson in the series averaging 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, five assists and 4.2 blocks on 50 percent from the field. Robinson averaged 23.8 points, 11.3 boards, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in the six-game series.
The Rockets took control of the series winning the first two games in San Antonio. The Spurs turned the tide winning both games in Houston to even the series at 2-2.
In the pivotal Game 5, the Rockets came with it right from the jump outscoring the Spurs 32-18 in the opening stanza and they never looked back stealing back home court advantage with a 111-90 victory to take a 3-2 lead over the Spurs. Olajuwon was magnificent once again with 42 points, nine boards, eight assists and five blocks. Cassell had 30 points, 12 assists and three steals off the bench. Drexler had 19 points and Horry had 14 points, 13 rebounds and four steals.
In a nip and tuck Game 6, the Rockets outscored the Spurs 24-20 in the fourth quarter to win Game 6 100-95 and the series 4-2 to advance back to the NBA Finals.
Olajuwon, who outscored Robinson 81-41 the last four games had 39 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks in the closing Game 6. Horry had 22 points and seven boards and Drexler had 16 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
The Rockets met the Orlando Magic and the up and coming dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and the Orlando Magic in The 1995 NBA Finals.
As they have throughout the playoffs, the Rockets had to overcome an early deficit as they trailed 61-50 at intermission.
A 37-19 third quarter gave the Rockets an 87-80 lead entering the four quarter. Leading by three in the closing moments of the fourth Magic guard Nick Anderson missed four straight free throws that gave the Rockets a chance. Smith made the most of that opportunity by nailing his seventh three-pointer of the game to tie the game at 110.
In the closing seconds of overtime, Olajuwon scored points 36 and 37 off a Drexler missed layup that gave the Rockets the lead and eventually the victory 120-118.
They never looked back capturing Game 2 in convincing fashion 117-106 thanks to 34 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks from Olajuwon. The Rockets won a tight Game 3 106-103 back in Houston.
A 66-point second half, outscoring the Magic by 66-50 points in the second 24 minutes earned the Rockets a 113-101 victory and their second straight title. Olajuwon, who won his second straight Finals MVP had 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals in the clinching Game 6. Elie had 22 points on 9 for 11 from the floor, including 4 for 6 from three-point territory. Horry, who had a great Finals had 21 points, 13 boards and five assists. Drexler, who finally got that elusive championship after falling in his first two chances with the Trail Blazers in 1990 and 1992 had 15 points, nine boards, eight assists and two steals.
When the journey was completed, Tomjanovich said the iconic line that has stood for many years about the Rockets back-to-back titles.
He said after the presentation of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, “I have one thing to say to those non-believers. Don’t every underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The journey to the top of the NBA for the Houston Rockets began on July 30, 1993 when current owner Leslie Alexander bought the Rockets for $85 million. He took in interim tag from Tomjanovich making him the full-time head coach and the likes of Smith, Maxwell, Horry, Elie, Cassell and Thorpe became the supporting cast that Olajuwon needed and the rest is history.
The current edition of the Rockets has a very similar makeup. They have a dominate center in Dwight Howard, who has been named Defensive Player of the Year. A great two guard in Harden and solid role players like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni and a three-time NBA champion in head coach Kevin McHale.
They also have the motivation of disappointment from losing in the first round a season ago to the Trail Blazers, who took the series in six games when All-Star guard Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three-pointer in the closing moments.
Last Thursday night was a time to look back at a team that won back-to-back titles and immortalized themselves in the hearts of many of their fans. It was also an opportunity for the current Rockets to see what is possible and the necessary focus that it will take for them bring another title to “Clutch City.”
For that to have a chance of happening the Rockets need Howard back on the court as he has not played since Jan. 23 because of swelling in his right knee. He did say the day before that he is getting close to returning and has returned to practice this past week.
“When he gets back, nothing changes,” Harden said on Thursday to Greenberg and Scott. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to help this team get to where we want to go. We can’t wait. We’re waiting for the big fella to get back and he’s going to help us with this playoff push.”
Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 3/20/15 1:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Jared Greenberg, Dennis Scott and Tracy McGrady; Sporting News “Official 2006-07 NBA Guide;” www.basketball-reference.com/playoffs/NBA_1994.html; www.basketball-reference.com/playoffs/NBA_1995.html; www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/19960118HOU.html; Feb. 10, 1994 article “The Voices of Los Rockets” by David Theis of Houston Press from www.houstonpress.com/1994-02-10/news/the-voice-of-los-rockets; www.espn.go.com/nba/boxscore?id=290314014; Video titled “Honoring The Champs” posted Mar. 19, 2015 on www.nba.com/gameline; www.espn.go.com/nba/recap?id=400579309; en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston_Rockets; en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakeem_Olajuwon.