When talking about the greatest title runs in NBA Championship History, most don’t recall the 1994-1995 Houston Rockets who made theirs as a 6th seed. Heres why its the greatest, and most improbable, title run in NBA History.
As with most things in Sports, opinions of teams and their accomplishments can be skewed to fit a certain narrative by the fan telling it. These fans love to wax nostalgic over their sports champions of the past with present platitudes of the result of the teams success, but not the process in which they achieved it. Championship teams are built, not just in one transaction, but in a series of transactions. Those transactions hopefully produce what any GM making those moves longs for, a World Title. As a fan of the Houston Rockets, my focus today is on the 1994-1995 World Champion Houston Rockets and why their title run was the greatest in NBA history.
All NBA team champions must be celebrated by those who discuss them; as the arduous nature of the long season combined with now having to win 4 seven game series concurently in the post season, generally produces the best team that season (I’m aware of the 5 game 1st round series played by champions pre-2003 season). Even when you take into consideration injuries, the team left standing at the end of the year is the best team that year because they proved it. No paper tigers allowed here. Champions prove it in the playoffs.
Building a Champion
The 1993-1994 team had high expectations entering that season, internally, coming off a 55 win season but losing in 7 games to their nemesis the Seattle Supersonics in the 2nd round. They buoyed those expectations with two solid, under the radar transactions in the off-season.
First, they drafted Sam Cassell out of Florida State at the end of the first round. Then they acquired Mario Elie from Portland, giving them a versatile 2-way wing. Those moves, under the guidance of coach Rudy Tomjanovich, helped the Rockets win their first 15 games that season.
Overall they won 58 games en-route to the Midwest title (that’s what the division was called in those days) and were 2nd in the West. Even though they looked like championship material and were led by that seasons MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, Hakeem Olajuwon, they were overlooked by everyone.
The focus was on the Seattle Supersonics coming out of the West, sporting the leagues best record, and considering this was the post Michael Jordan era, the chip was up for grabs. We all know how that season turned out as the Rockets proved their championship mettle going from Choke City to Clutch City, the latter moniker that still defines the Rockets in Houston, by winning the first championship in Houston team sports history.
Prelude to Greatest Championship run ever
The 1994-1995 season for the Houston Rockets was to serve as validation for the 1993-1994 team that won the title the year before. In defense of their first title they once again got off to a fast start to begin a season, winning the first 9 games. Despite the early season success, the struggle to find the consistency and championship chemistry that defined their run the previous season was apparent. A bold move was necessary in an attempt to collate a 2nd title.
When the Rockets traded Otis Thorpe for Clyde Drexler at the trade deadline that season, the bold move necessity was qualified. Although most pundits were against the idea considering OT’s role on the ’94 team and how big/little trades were frowned upon in that era, pairing Hakeem and Clyde was genius.
It was clear the Rockets needed a perimeter player that could consistently attack the rim and get to the line to balance Hakeems overall dominance, and even with Clydes advancing age (he was 31 during the season) he was still a top 20 player in the league. The Drexler deal didn’t produce immediate results as the Houston Rockets finished .500 after they acquired “the Glyde”; and even with the middling end to their 47 win regular season, the Rockets were using that time to gear up for the greatest championship run to date.
Greatest Championship run ever Bonafides
When the ’95 playoffs began, the 6th seeded Rockets were a complete afterthought; intriguing and new look with Clyde, but one nonetheless. They began with the Karl Malone, John Stockton and the 3rd seed Utah Jazz. That series went to a 5th and deciding game when the acquisition of Clyde Drexler came to the fore. He led Houston to victory, taking over the 4th quarter and eliminating the 60 win Jazz. That series win incited championship belief for all who bled Rockets red.
The second round was a rematch with Charles Barkley‘s Phoenix Suns who the Rockets laid waste in 7 the previous season by coming back from getting blowed out on their home floor the first 2 games. They got down 3-1 in the rematch but fought their way back culminating with Elie hitting the corner 3 “Kiss of Death” shot that defined their title run to date. Gone were the 59 win Suns, again in 7.
The Western Conference Finals was a PHD thesis statement on why Hakeem Olajuwon was the greatest big man of his era and the best player in the league; I believe 3 years running to that point. The Houston Rockets I-10 rival, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs, were all that stood in the way for a return to the Finals. Behind an all-time performance in a close out game by the “Dream” the Rockets eliminated the 62 win Spurs in 6 games; validating Hakeem and the Rockets as the Wests best.
In the Finals the Rockets faced the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic. This team had two young superstars in Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway and was supposed to be the next great dynasty. They won 57 games that season, just defeated an out of retirement Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls team in the ECF and were everyone’s pick to win the NBA Championship. Kenny Smith‘s then finals record seven 3’s and Nick Anderson choking away 4 free throws in an attempt seal a win for the Magic in Game 1, Sam Cassell‘s 31 point effort off the bench in Game 2, and Big Shot Bob’s (Robert Horry for the uninitiated) game deciding 3 in Game 3, were what the Rockets needed to take those games and go on to sweep the Orlando Magic for their 2nd consecutive title. The Houston Rockets were champions again.
Of the 73 champions in NBA history, there is only one that claimed the title via the 6th seed, the ’94-’95 Houston Rockets. They beat in succession the 60 win Utah Jazz, the 59 win Phoenix Suns, the 62 win San Antonio Spurs and the 57 win Orlando Magic; all without home court advantage. No championship team in NBA history has beaten 4 teams with that collective win total as the Rockets did in their ’95 championship march.
Their improbable run is littered with the destruction of the games greatest stars and the best teams in the league that year. Theirs is the greatest championship title run of all time. No other NBA title run in history compares. In the immortal words of should be Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich, “Never underestimate the heart of a Champion”.
Wise words indeed.