New Look, Old Rivals
To start the 1995-96 season and their quest for a three-peat, the Rockets changed their uniforms, logo and colors. The team got off to a fast start that year, but injuries derailed most of the regular season. Elie, Cassell, and Drexler all wrestled with injuries throughout, but the Rockets still finished with a 48-34 record to set up a first-round matchup with the Lakers.
The Lakers were the higher seed that year with the return of Magic Johnson, but the Rockets won the series 3-1 in what would be Johnson’s final action in the NBA.
In the second round, the Rockets were up against their old playoff nemesis, the Sonics. The Rockets were blown out in the first game in Seattle. Over the next three games, the Rockets led late but were ultimately swept by the Sonics.
This would lead to one of the biggest offseasons in Rockets history. The team decided to break up the core of those Clutch City teams by trading away Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant and Chucky Brown to Phoenix for Charles Barkley.
With Barkley now on the team, the Rockets had a tremendous start, going 21-2 in the first 23 games. Injuries, however, again slowed the Rockets down. Barkley only played 53 games that season and Drexler dealt with injuries most of the year.
Even with the injuries, the Rockets finished second in the Western Conference and swept the Timberwolves in the first round. The Rockets would finally close out the Sonics in seven games and move on to face the Jazz, who were the number one seed.
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Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. The Rockets tied the series at two apiece but lost Game 5.
Then, one of the most heartbreaking losses in Rockets history came in Game 6 on a John Stockton buzzer-beater (that was also helped by a moving screen).
The Rockets would lose in five games the following year with Barkley missing the final game against the Jazz. After that season, Drexler retired and Elie signed a deal with the Spurs.
To fill the void, the Rockets traded for Scottie Pippen before the strike-shortened season of 1998-99. Despite the internal issues between Barkley and Pippen, the Rockets finished 31-19.
The Rockets could only manage one win against the Lakers in the first round and quickly ended their Pippen experiment, trading him to Portland.
The Following year, Olajuwon only played in 44 games and Barkley suffered a season-ending injury in December. The Rockets finished 34-48, their worst record in over a decade.
Olajuwon would play one more year for the Rockets before being traded to the Raptors, officially ending the best run in the Rockets history. The Rockets would not make it back to the Western Conference Finals until 2015.
The 1990s was easily the best era in Rockets history. From heartbreaking losses to buzzer-beaters and championships, the Rockets brought the city of Houston great memories, good and bad.
The core of Olajuwon, Maxwell, Smith, Elie, Bullard, and Drexler will forever be remembered as the group that brought Houston its first two rings. Even though it ended sooner than we all hoped, it will never be forgotten.