How Vernon Maxwell saved the Rockets’ first championship

Vernon Maxwell #11 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Vernon Maxwell #11 of the Houston Rockets (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Although former Houston Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell was never the star player on the team, the Rockets wouldn’t have won their first title without Mad Max’s heroics.

There have been many great moments in Houston Rockets history, from epic playoff upsets like the 1980-81 team defeating the Los Angeles Lakers en route to the Finals, to Mario Elie‘s “Kiss of Death” in the 1995 playoffs, to Hakeem Olajuwon dominating David Robinson in the 1995 playoffs.

One moment that’s not discussed enough in Rockets history is Game 3 of the 1994 Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns.

The Rockets had the second-best record in the Western Conference that season, which led to them landing the number two seed. The Rockets were able to skate past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, which led to a second-round matchup against the Suns.

The Rockets’ toughest opponent was the Seattle Supersonics, who had already been eliminated in the first round by the Denver Nuggets. Everything was lining up perfectly for the Rockets to finally give the city of Houston its first championship.

This quote from “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns is one way to sum up how the Rockets’ first two and a half games against the Suns went: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it.”

The Rockets were coming off a game in which they held an 18-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, which seemed like a lock to tie the series at 1-1. Unfortunately, the Rockets were outscored 42-17 in the fourth quarter and overtime, which resulted in them being down 0-2 heading back to Phoenix for Game 3.

Game 3 wasn’t going much better, as the Rockets found themselves down 29-15 at the conclusion of the first quarter and trailed by eight points at the half.

The Rockets were clearly on the brink of falling 0-3 to the Suns, which would’ve almost certainly resulted in yet another disappointing playoff loss and an even more disappointing end to the season. Vernon Maxwell had something to say about that, however, as he exhibited a clutch gene that completely shifted the momentum in favor of the Rockets.

Although Maxwell only had a total of three points in the first half, Mad Max was simply not going to allow the Rockets to go down 0-3. Maxwell came out on fire in the second half, as he attacked the rim and was aggressive on defense.

Mad Max got to the rim at will, which then set up his teammates for easy baskets. The Rockets slowly chipped away at the lead as Maxwell completely took the game over.  This point needs to be reiterated, as a loss here would’ve almost certainly prevented the creation of Clutch City.

Maxwell made it a point to attack Kevin Johnson at every opportunity, and made five consecutive 3-pointers in the second half. All in all, Maxwell scored 31 points in the second half, finishing with 34 points on 14-of-22 from the field.

With help from the great Hakeem Olajuwon, the duo brought the Rockets back and helped finish off the Suns in Game 3, 118-102. This gave the Rockets their first win of the series and eventually won the series in seven games.

The Houston Rockets would go on to defeat the New York Knicks in seven games in the NBA Finals and bring the city of Houston its first-ever championship.

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This performance by Maxwell should be held in the same regard as great moments like Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” and Olajuwon’s tip-in to win Game 1 of the 1995 Finals. It’s no overstatement to say Vernon Maxwell saved Clutch City.