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1994-95 Houston Rockets - Biggest underdog victory in history
Rockets Earn Respect With Finals Sweep
Give the Houston Rockets some respect. Give them their place in history. Anyone who would deny that to the Rockets simply hadn't been paying attention.
"We had nonbelievers all along the way, and I have one thing to say to those nonbelievers: Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion," declared coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the supreme Rocketman who had been with the franchise as a player, scout, assistant coach, and now head coach for a quarter of a century, all the way back to 1970-71, when the uniforms read "San Diego" across the front.
The 1993-94 Rockets had proved that they could win the war of the trenches and outgrind the New York Knicks, averaging 86 points per game in the NBA Finals en route to their first championship. The 1994-95 Rockets, faced with more athletic rivals playing a faster brand of ball, rose to the challenge and again did what they had to do to win, this time scoring 114 points per contest against the Orlando Magic.
That's an amazing swing of 28 points per game from one Finals to the next -- by virtually the same team, no less. The Houston Rockets went out and reinvented themselves almost overnight in order to secure their place in hoops history.
"It's hard for me to put into words how I feel about this team," said Tomjanovich, his deep voice charged with emotion following the Rockets' four-game sweep of the Magic. "The character, the guts -- no team in the history of the league did what this team did."
Indeed, no team had ever stopped four 50-win teams en route to the title, as Houston did in overcoming the Utah Jazz (60-22), Phoenix Suns (59-23), San Antonio Spurs (62-20) and Orlando (57-25). No team ever beat the clubs with the four best regular-season records in the league in order to win the championship. No team ever won as many as nine road games in one year's playoffs, and no team ever won seven road games in a row. Houston did it all.
"Every team we beat could have won the championship," Tomjanovich said. "That's why I say this lack of respect has got to stop."
The Rockets were the champions who would not die. They survived a disappointing regular season that included a major trade, injuries, illness and some player turmoil, and went into the NBA Playoffs knowing that if they were to repeat as champions, they would have to do it the hard way -- on the road.
They fell behind the Utah Jazz two games to one, but then came back to win the best-of-five first-round series. In the next round they lost the first two games to the Phoenix Suns but again bounced back to win. The Rockets then beat the best of the West, defeating the Spurs, and the best of the East, mauling the Magic.
"All we wanted was a chance," said longtime assistant coach Carroll Dawson. "We thought that if we could just get into the playoffs, we could get better with every series."
That's just what the Rockets did, as they joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls as the only NBA franchises to successfully defend their titles.
In becoming the first team ever to defend a title with a sweep, the Rockets achieved a new measure of respect among basketball fans everywhere. That's what Houston's 1995 title chase was all about. Respect.
Respect for Hakeem Olajuwon, who somehow managed to place only fifth in NBA MVP balloting and who, despite a superhuman performance during the 1994 title run, never drew even a fraction of the commercial acclaim that went to some far less talented but more "colorful" rivals.
Respect for Clyde Drexler, one of the NBA's class acts for a dozen years, who as of the start of the 1995 NBA Finals had scored more playoff points than any active player but had never won a championship ring. It took a flight alongside his college teammate "Hakeem the Dream" for "Clyde the Glide" to achieve his title dream.
Respect for Tomjanovich, who is rarely mentioned when discussion turns to the NBA's top coaches -- but is there a better coach anywhere at getting the most from his players, who to a man seem eager to run through walls for him?
Respect for the "no-names" so vital to Houston's success: young players on the rise such as Robert Horry and Sam Cassell, who were just scratching the surface of their potential, and CBA veterans such as Mario Elie and late pickups Chucky Brown and Charles Jones, who were happy to be playing in the ultimate basketball showdown instead of struggling for survival in the minors.
And most of all, respect for the Rockets as a team, something many felt did not come their way in 1994-95, when many in the media dismissed Houston as merely the best of a mediocre lot, a one-year fluke that had been fortunate to win in a season lacking in strong teams.
"We did this as a team," said Kenny Smith, who teamed with Cassell to give the Rockets an impressive one-two point guard punch. "We stuck together and believed in ourselves. That's how we got here."
The road was not smooth, however. The Rockets were idling in midseason but were jump-started by the trade of Otis Thorpe, their model power forward, to the Portland Trail Blazers for the aging Drexler. Many, including several of the Rockets' own players, criticized the deal that sent away a solid rebounding frontcourtman and brought in return a 32-year-old guard best known for his offensive forays and never known for his defense.
But Drexler blended in smoothly with his new teammates, and especially with his former college teammate from Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" class, Olajuwon. Although the addition of Drexler forced the subtraction of Vernon Maxwell, who could not adapt to coming off the bench, by the time the playoffs started the Rockets were running on all burners.
The Rockets, seeded sixth among Western Conference teams, become the lowest-seeded team ever to win the title. (The 1969 Celtics were seeded fourth in the East.)
The Rockets also became the team with the lowest-ranking regular-season record to win a championship. Houston's 47-35 mark was only tied for 10th best during the 1994-95 regular season; the 1978 Washington Bullets' 44-38 record was eighth best in the league that year.
Houston set NBA playoff records by winning seven consecutive road games and nine road games overall. The Rockets became the first team to win an NBA championship without having the home-court advantage in any of its four playoff rounds. (Boston never had the home-court advantage in 1969 but only had to play three rounds).
Asked to compare the Rockets' two championship teams, Olajuwon said, "Last year's team was the best last year. This year's team had a bigger task. There were no easy teams. We had to play Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and now Orlando. We have paid our dues."
Continue to Part 2