May 17, 1997.
Aaron Brooks and Von Wafer were in sixth grade. The Oilers were only a year removed from their Houston existence. The Texans were still more than five years from their birth. The Astros had yet to make the playoffs in the Biggio-Bagwell era. Then-President Bill Clinton was still eight months from being outed for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Oh, and that's also the last day the Rockets had won a postseason series.
But it all changed Thursday night, as a long chapter of mediocrity for one of the NBA's most storied franchises finally reached its conclusion.
You can make it official: Clutch City is back.
Led by 27 points from a suddenly-hot Ron Artest, Yao Ming and the Rockets finished off their playoff ghosts, defeating the Blazers 92-76 in Game 6 to clinch their first series victory in 12 years. After having series against the Mavs and Jazz slip out of their grasp in the past four years, the Rockets finally finished the deal.
"This one is for the fans and the people of Houston," forward Shane Battier told Hair Balls. "I know it's been a long time coming. I've only been here three years, but you feel the frustrations of the fans here and they love a winner here. We are glad that we could get a win for them tonight."
The story of the game was Artest, who relentlessly attacked the basket to shake off awful shooting performances for most of the series, finishing 11-for-21 from the field. But as with Chuck Hayes' game-winning charge in Game 4, the statement play didn't even show up in the box score.
Leading by 20 with under two minutes to go and the game long over, Artest sprinted all-out toward the baseline for a loose ball, tossing it over his shoulder to Battier before winding up about 10 rows into the stands.
From there, he soaked it in, reclining in a seat for several seconds while the sold-out Toyota Center crowd roared its approval and mobbed him with pats on the back. To say the least, it went a lot more smoothly for Artest than his most famous trip into the stands.
"I've been in the stands before," Artest joked (about 50 seconds into the clip). "This time, it was home court. I wanted to soak it in so much I had to sit down. Actually, this guy offered me some beer. When he did that, I was like you know what? I'm going to sit down and enjoy this. He's not throwing it at me. I was going to take a sip, but there were too many cameras."
In all seriousness, it was a play Artest had no reason to make. The game was well in hand. He had already filled out the box score with a terrific night.
But all season long, the Rockets have been a team in the truest since of the word. They've constantly done the little things to compensate for the missing big things, like Tracy McGrady. Fittingly, it was Artest -- the team's appointed leader, according to Battier -- that set the example.
"We're not finished," Artest said. "I'm not happy just to be out of the first round. That's not the goal here. You have to show the young guys that how you finish that game is how we need to start... when we get to LA."
The Rockets will open their second-round series with title favorite Los Angeles next Monday night. But dissecting that can wait another day, according to Rockets GM Daryl Morey. This night was for Houston, and perhaps more importantly, for Yao. Yao had been in the first round on four previous occasions, only to suffer heartbreak and back-breaking, late-game losses every time.
In the end, the vaunted duo of Yao and McGrady never got it done together. But with McGrady out, Yao anchored the team, both on and off the court, for the season's final two months, and that continued into the first round.
Yao said his game-day ritual usually includes an afternoon nap. But after losing Game 5 in Portland, the Rockets' big man said he was so frustrated that not only did he skip his nap Thursday, but he was up an hour-and-a-half earlier than usual to mentally prepare himself.
It worked. Yao finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in Game 6, and punctuated his first series win with a facial over Joel Przybilla, giving the Rockets enormous momentum and a comfortable 15-point lead entering the second half.
"It was the biggest win in my NBA career," said Yao. "It felt so great when the clock ran down and I still can't believe that came true."
But perhaps the biggest hero for the Rockets on Thursday scored only five points in 16 minutes. After being ruled out of Game 6 on Thursday morning with back spasms caused by a bulging disc suffered in Game 5, Wafer responded well to therapy sessions and changed the minds of the medical staff at the last minute, bringing the Rockets and the crowd an emotional jolt off the bench.
"Everybody on this team is that way," head coach Rick Adelman said. "That's how this team has gotten where they are."
Going forward, Wafer needs to be 100 percent for the Rockets to have a chance against the dominant Lakers. He was one of the Rockets' few bright spots in four losses to LA, averaging 17 points a game against them in only 28 minutes, while shooting 58 percent from the floor.
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But the Rockets' chances against the Lakers are a story for another day. For now, it's a celebration. After losing one of the team's intended franchise players in McGrady and suffering a heartbreaking loss in Dallas that cost them home court advantage, the Rockets showed incredible resilience and are champions of a playoff series for the first time in 12 years.
Most importantly, the franchise that has long been the pride of Houston sports and the first to bring it a championship has returned to national relevance. The Rockets are finally back.
"Again, this is really for the fans of Houston," Battier said. "They've had a lot of frustrations. They've had a lot of good teams that just couldn't get out of the first round. We're glad to get into the second round, and hopefully we can get into the third."
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