• Gerald Malunga

1995 title-winning Rockets deserve more praise

In NBA folklore, illustrious teams such as the ‘Showtime’ Lakers, the Boston Celtics of the Larry Bird era and the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls, to name a few, are often celebrated but very little is mentioned of the 1994-1995 Houston Rockets.

The Rockets claimed a second successive NBA championship in 1995 but the hurdles they had to overcome made them a special team. They finished the regular season as the sixth seed in the Western Conference and at times looked a shadow of the team that had won the title the previous season. As the sixth seed, the Rockets are still the lowest seeded team to ever win a championship, their standing might have made pundits and analysts alike doubt their chances of holding the Larry O’Brian trophy aloft again. The Rockets also created yet another record by beating four 50-win teams in the postseason to win the title.

Chemistry issues

When the Rockets traded for Clyde Drexler midway through the season, they initially believed they had strengthened their push for another title after acquiring another superstar to ease the load off Hakeem Olajuwon. On paper, the Rockets had a team with the right ingredients for another title assault, in fact they had upgraded the shooting guard position with the addition of Drexler.

However, team chemistry is not as easy as the illustrious line up had suggested, the team had an inconsistent run in the second half of the season as they went on a downward spiral that saw them slip down the pecking order in the West. There were fears that the same chemistry problems would haunt them in the Playoffs.

The Postseason: A sudden surge in form

In the first round they faced a 50-win team in the Utah Jazz (led by Karl Malone and John Stockton). The Rockets suffered an early setback as they were 2-1 down against the Jazz, however they rallied and turned the series around as they ended up winning 3-2 after five games. Up next on the list was another 50-win team in the form of the Phoenix Suns (led by All-Star and former MVP Charles Barkley) in the Western Conference semi-finals, Phoenix took an early 2-0 lead in the series, the Rockets then made a statement in Game 3 as they blew out the Suns to half the deficit in the series.

The upbeat mood was, however, short lived as the Suns took Game 4 in Houston. Staring elimination in the face, the Rockets then channelled their spirit of 1994 as they won the next three games to win the series (4-3). Lying in wait, was their toughest test yet against the San Antonio Spurs, and this was a personal battle as Olajuwon would get another chance to pit his wits against familiar foe David Robinson who had been named the regular season MVP, an accolade that had been won by Olajuwon the previous season. Olajuwon and the Rockets then put on an impressive display as they ran out 4-2 winners in the Western Conference Finals.

Beating the Shaq & Penny Magic

The return of Michael Jordan in the ‘94-‘95 season was seen as another threat to the competitive nature of the league as his Bulls team had dominated the early 90s, however, the Orlando Magic team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway flipped the script as they eliminated the Bulls in the Playoffs. Beating prime Jordan was considered an unthinkable feat but the Magic did it and they were now the overwhelming favourites to win the title.

In the NBA Finals, the Rockets squared up against a fourth 50-win opponent in the Magic. The overall feeling was that another back and forth series was on the cards but the Rockets made light work of Orlando as they comprehensively swept them to win a second consecutive title.

In today’s game, most sixth seeded teams wouldn’t even dream of being a title contender given the intense competition in the league, this makes the Rockets’ 1995 title triumph quite unique, it is a record that seems unlikely to be matched.

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