They were the dynasty no one notice. When the 1994 Playoffs began, there was no Michael Jordan (who had temporarily retired before the start of the season) and, for the first time ever, no Lakers or Celtics.
The Houston Rockets had won the Midwest Division with a 58-24 record making them the second seed in the west. In the Conference Semifinals, the Rockets lost the first two games at home after blowing big fourth-quarter leads, leading the Houston Chronicle to run a headline “Choke City” (which was due in part to the epic collapse of the Houston Oilers who blew a 32-point lead to the Buffalo Bills the year before in the biggest collapse in NFL history).
The team would win 8 of their next 9 home games as the Rockets would claim the city’s first major championship.
THE FORGOTTEN FINALS
The Rockets, were led by MVP Hakeem Olajuwon, and faced Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals ten years after the two met in the 1984 NCAA Finals when Ewing led Georgetown to its only NCAA title. Despite having a clash of the leagues dominant titans and two of the largest TV markets in the finals, ratings were down by 30% falling to a 13 year low.
At the same time, the U.S, was hosting the World Cup and would score their first win since 1950 just before Game 7 started. The other major distraction was the media frenzy over the “slow speed” chase and arrest of O.J. Simpson, which actually preempted a portion of Game 5.
The Rockets beat the Knicks in a grueling 7-game series in which every game was decided in the final two-minutes. Down 3-2 heading back to Houston, Olajuwon outscored Ewing 55-36 in the last two games and had a decisive block in Game 6 to save the victory.
THE HEART OF A CHAMPION
The Rockets struggled much of the following season and shook things up with a trade that sent Otis Thorpe to Portland and reunited Olajawon with his Houston college teammate Clyde Drexler. The move cut into Vernon Maxwell’s playing time and he was eventually suspended by the team and waived at the end of the season. Surprisingly, the Rockets still managed to end up in the finals, facing rising star Shaquielle O”Neal and the Orlando Magic where everyone expected a sweep – but by Orlando.
The Rockets became the first team in NBA history to win the championship as a sixth seed. In addition, they became the first team in NBA history to beat four 50-win teams in a single postseason en route to the championship. The Rockets would win a playoff-record nine road games in the 1995 playoffs. In addition, the Rockets’ sweep of the Magic was unique, in the fact that it was a “reverse sweep,” where Houston won Games 1 and 2 on the road and 3 and 4 at home. It was also the second NBA Finals sweep in the 2-3-2 Finals format. The Rockets also became the first repeat NBA Champion in history to keep the title with a sweep. In addition, the Rockets became the first team in NBA history to win the title without having home-court advantage in any of the four playoff rounds since the playoffs was expanded to a 16 team format in 1984.
In doing so, the Rockets cemented Olajawon’s position as the dominant player in the abbreviated post-Jordan era.
In their moment of triumph, long-time Rocket player and coach Rudy Tomjanovich told the hometown fans:
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!