Where does yesterday's deceptively close 99-87 shellacking of the Lakers rank in the annals of great Rockets victories? It's too soon to tell. If they build on that win by taking this series and then slip into their fifth NBA finals, minus not just Yao but also his geriatric Congolese understudy, not even to mention T-Mac, it will be one of the great ones for sure.
But somehow Hair Balls doubts David Stern will allow his foul minions to let this bunch of scrappy no-names cheat him out of his long-slavered-for King James-Kobe match-up. Call us cynics, but the Tim Donaghy scandal didn't surprise us in the least. So enjoy this euphoria while it lasts, and drink in the memories of these past Rocket glories, some of the furnished to us by John Egan, local musican and former Rockets ballboy. (Egan is also the son of former Rockets coach Dave Egan.)
5. Game 3, First Round of the 1975 Eastern Conference Playoffs vs. the New York Knicks
Back in '75, the Rockets had been in Houston only a couple of years and were still calling Hofheinz Pavilion home. Johnny Egan's Rockets were led by young stars Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy and Mike Newlin, and the future looked bright, as they would be moving into the Summit the following year. This was the first time the team made the playoffs (as the Houston Rockets) and also the first time they managed to sell out Hofheinz's friendly confines. Their first playoff opponent was the New York Knicks, led by the Hall of Fame backcourt of Clyde Frazier and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, not to mention forwards Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson and Jerry Lucas. The Rockets bested these aging greats two games to one, with former UTEP star Gus Bailey wreaking havoc on Monroe and Frazier. Next they met Boston, and in a story line that would become all-too-familiar over the next eleven years, the Celtics would abort the Rockets' launch on their way to yet another league title.
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4. Game 3, First Round of the 1981 Western Conference Playoffs vs. the Los Angeles Lakers The Rockets staggered into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, thus drawing the top-seeded Lakers, who were coming off yet another championship. To say the Rockets were led by Moses Malone is something of an understatement, as Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich were by then well past their primes, and Alan Leavell and Robert Reid were not yet even the middling NBA starters they would later become. The rest of coach Del Harris's roster was made up of guys like Major Jones and Billy "The Whopper" Paultz, but somehow this bunch bested (a hobbled) Magic and Kareem 89-86 in the first round's deciding Game Three and marched through the rest of the conference en route to another butt-kicking at the hands of the Celtics.
This was the first (and last) time a team with a losing record made it to the finals, and until 2003's Spurs-Nets matchup, the Rockets-Celtics series (which Boston won 4 games to 2) was the lowest-rated finals to date. Hell, most of the games were shown on tape-delay, the last such series to suffer that indignity.
3. Game 5, 1986 Western Conference Finals vs. the Los Angeles Lakers
Things were looking grim for the Rockets in the Forum. After racking up 30 points, Akeem Olajuwon has been ejected after a 4th quarter fight with Mitch Kupchak, and with 37 seconds left, Magic Johnson's corner jumper put his Showtime Lakers ahead by three. On the ensuing possession, Robert Reid swished a second chance at a trey from virtually the same spot on the floor where he had just bricked another. The Lakers had 15 seconds to end the series and punch their ticket for a rematch with the Boston Celtics, whom they had defeated for the title in 1985, but Byron Scott's 20-foot jumper clanged out long, and Alan Leavell snatched the carom with one measly second left.
And that set up one of the ugliest, albeit most joyful, buzzer-beaters of all time. Color analyst Tom Heinsohn saw it coming, saying that Rocket small forward Rodney McCray would inbound to 7'4" Ralph Sampson. McCray did just that, and an off-balance Sampson caught the ball while twisting in the air about 17 feet out, and without ever touching the ground, launched an awkward prayer towards the hoop. The ball clanged straight up off the back rim and rattled in, and the Rockets were on their way! Unfortunately, only to their second NBA Championship defeat at the hands of the much-loathed Celtics in five years. At least this Beantown flop was broadcast live and got decent ratings decent ratings.
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2. Game 7, 1995 Western Conference Semifinals vs the Phoenix Suns
The road to the Rockets championship repeat was paved with heroics from multiple sources: Robert Horry, Clyde Drexler, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith all stepped up with huge shots when needed, and Olajuwon's sustained dominance at center was as brilliant a playoff performance as any big man has ever displayed. Still, the Rockets managed to fall behind Charles Barkley's Suns three games to one before clawing back to a tie and a deciding game in the desert, and the Rockets would find there was one more hero on the team. With time running out, Robert Horry found Mario Elie, a defensive bulldog with spotty shooting skills, lurking in the corner beyond the three-point arc. Houston fans gasped as Elie -- a career 37 percent three-point shooter -- hoisted up a trey, which astoundingly found nothing but net. As Elie jogged back up the court, he blew Suns center Joe Kleine a two-fingered "kiss of death," thus making this easily the most stylish buzzer-beater in Rockets, or hell, all of Houston sports, history.
1. Game 6, 1994 NBA Finals vs the New York Knicks
A solid pick freed deadly Knicks three-point sniper John Starks from Vernon Maxwell's smothering embrace, and the series hung in the balance for a split-second as the ball spun out of Starks's fingers. The quick thinking and even faster feet of Hakeem Olajuwon saved the day; Dream got just enough of the ball to ensure there would be a Game 7, which the Rockets won easily. It wasn't the most dramatic way to claim your city's first major sports championship -- it certainly lacked the exclamatory finality of the Lorenzo Charles fiasco in the NCAA Finals back in the Phi Slama Jama days, for example -- but nevertheless, this tipped jumper set H-Town on course to its transformation from Choke City to Clutch City. Fitting that it was two former UH guys that led the way -- Olajuwon, and reserve Carl Herrera, who came off the bench and sparked the Rockets by shooting six of six from the field.