In our next edition of this NBA lockout series, we remember how one of the weirdest and most forgotten teams of all time nearly knocked off out a future NBA champion.
The first round of the 1993 NBA Playoffs was nuts. Five series went the distance, and another one (Celtics-Hornets) ended in a buzzer beater and a ton of controversy. Perhaps no series, though, was weirder than the one between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. (Well, except for maybe one, but that's for another time).
This was the year the Rockets began to build the juggernaut that would win back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. On January 8, 1993, the Rockets lost to the Denver Nuggets to fall to 14-16 on the year. They went 41-11 the rest of the way to win the Midwest Division. Hakeem Olajuwon, who began the year disenchanted with the Rockets and almost certainly on his way out, played at an MVP level in carrying the club.
Then, you had the Clippers, one of the strangest teams ever assembled. The Clippers were a .500 team that swept the Knicks (East's No. 1 seed) and won three out of five against the Suns (West's No. 1 seed), but also lost twice to Sacramento (25-57 on the year) and at home to Philadelphia (26-56). During the year, there was a lot of finger-pointing going on. Star Danny Manning came out publicly and said he didn't want to play for Larry Brown. Brown, for his part, was exploring other jobs.
This was a series pitting a team who would soon win two straight titles against one that saw all five starters and all but four players go elsewhere by the beginning of the 1994-95 season. And yet, the two teams split the first four games, and the Rockets needed to scrap and claw just to escape the Clippers in Game 5. Since history forgets this series, let's pick it up right here.
Pregame: We're live from The Summit in Houston. Marv Albert and Mike Fratello are on the call for NBC. Yes, it's true: the legendary NBC duo of the early '90s once called a Clippers game. I would guess that this is one of the few, if not only Clippers game Marv ever called while with NBC.
The Rockets start Kenny Smith and Winston Garland at the guards, with Robert Horry and Otis Thorpe up front and Olajuwon in the middle. One of the reasons this series went long is that Vernon Maxwell, the normal Rockets' starting guard and 1993's answer to J.R. Smith, broke his wrist in the final part of the season. He missed the first three games of this series before barely playing in Game 4. Ahmad Rashad, who actually did some things in his life beyond being Michael Jordan's lackey, reports Maxwell will play in Game 5. He's not starting, though.
The Clippers counter with Mark Jackson and Ron Harper at the guards, Ken Norman and Manning up front and Stanley Roberts in the middle. If your first thought is that this is the most '90s basketball card lineup ever assembled, you're right. In one of the more ridiculous adjustments you'll ever see, Brown has had Manning guarding Olajuwon since Game 3 because he can't trust Roberts to stay out of foul trouble otherwise. It actually worked in Game 4, so Brown is sticking with it for Game 5.
11:05: Norman hits a three from the corner, which displays another irregularity: Norman, a 26.3% three-point shooter during the regular season and a career 31.2% shooter from deep, hit eight of 11 threes in this series. Also, Ken Norman is one of the most forgotten decent players ever.
10:10: So, this happened. (Click to play).
In 2011, Norman would have been thrown out of the game. In 1993, nothing happened. Olajuwon was eventually fine, by the way.
9:50: Harper glides in for a finger roll on the break, drawing a foul on Garland. Ron Harper before his second knee surgery was so much fun to watch.
8:30: As Olajuwon checks back into the game, Marv begins discussing the feud Olajuwon had with the Rockets' owner and how he was certain to be traded. The whole backstory on that is here, but I found this one report from that link especially funny.
Last week, Mike Fratello was quoted as saying one of the reasons he did not want the Rockets' coaching job was because the club was 99-percent certain Olajuwon would be traded.
The guess here is that it's more like 100 percent.
Snarky sportswriting apparently existed in 1992 too.
7:58: Smith throws a transition crosscourt alleyoop pass to Horry into the second row. The funny thing about Smith being a two-time champion and de facto straight man on Inside the NBA is that Smith was, once upon a time, an incredibly erratic point guard that was benched in fourth quarters for Scott Brooks. Brooks, of course, now gets heat for running horrible fourth quarter offense as the Oklahoma City Thunder head coach. History is funny.
7:15: As Fratello relays a quote from Roberts on how he needs to get in shape, 310-pound combo forward John "Hot Plate" Williams checks in. Marv: "Speaking of players controlling their weight, the Clippers would like to see the same from John Williams."
Um, yeah. Fratello notes that Brown loves Williams' basketball IQ, which is crazy. Therefore, we're going to call him "Savvy John Williams" for the rest of this piece.
6:05: Down 12-6, the Rockets finally get something going, drawing a foul on Roberts after six straight missed shots. The Clippers keep switching their double team coverage and it's throwing the Rockets off. As the foul is called, ESPN Classic runs a graphic reminding us that Roberts led the NBA in personal fouls that season.
4:27: Roberts has switched back onto Olajuwon. Hakeem uses this as an excuse to start owning him, scoring six straight points.
3:00: Olajuwon, one dribble to middle, fallaway off the back foot, nothing but net. Beautiful to watch. Alas, none of Olajuwon's teammates are ready for this game.
2:01: Maxwell checks in and immediately steals an outlet pass, leading to a three by Matt Bullard. Meanwhile, Smith continues to jump-pass his way into turnovers.
11.6: Brown runs a clearout for Savvy John Williams at the top of the key. "Not many times you see an isolation from a 300-pounder at the top of the circle," Fratello muses in the understatement of the century. Savvy John Williams misses a long jumper, but after two Maxwell free throws, the Clippers somehow get a layup going full court in 1.5 seconds when Lester Conner (who?) catches it at the three-point line and immediately whips it to Jaren Jackson (who?) right at the basket. It's the Bryce Drew play, except five years earlier and way cooler. Rockets up, 26-25.
12:00: We begin with an interview with Clippers superfan Billy Crystal, who is wearing the following hat.
Marv: "Shameless promotion. Just awful." Mike gets no chance to respond. Marv's the best.
10:26: Just in case you thought flopping was a) a European thing and b) not in the NBA in 1993, Manning gets away with a pretty blatant flop on Olajuwon. Fratello says Manning is "one of the best at going for the Academy Award." To review: Manning is an American big man playing in 1993, and he flops.
4:04: A bunch of nothing happens (except for Marv saying "The Rockets do not respect the outside shot of Lester Conner," as if its something they should respect), so we'll jump ahead. Clippers lead 38-33. Both teams are shooting under 38 percent from the field in the quarter. Now you see why we jumped ahead.
3:23: Sign you need to hit the treadmill: when one announcer notes how you're "bodying up" on defense and his partner thinks he's making fun of your weight.
2:01: Missed shot, missed shot, missed shot, missed shot.
39.0: Manning pump fakes, ducks in between two defenders and somehow hits a one-handed push shot to give the Clippers a seven-point lead. What a strange career Manning had. He dealt with so many injuries, yet in 1993, he was a 23-point-a-game scorer. I guess you'd think of him as the precursor to Antawn Jamison, but Manning scored more, and Jamison would never be put on a guy like Olajuwon. Weirdly enough, the guy who may resemble him most now is Derrick Williams. Despite knee injuries, Manning was a two-time All-Star and a Sixth Man Award winner. Would you take that career from Williams if you're a Timberwolves fan?
8.0: Yup, you just saw the Clippers clearing out so Savvy John Williams could go to work at the end of a quarter again. Somewhere, Vinny Del Negro smiles and files this play away for his future coaching stint.
0.0: Olajuwon tips in a dunk at the buzzer to cut the Clippers' lead to five. Replays showed it shouldn't have counted, but this isn't 2011, so the basket stands.
11:20: Marv notes how Bill Walton, the Clippers' color commentator, motivated the Clippers by blasting them on air. He defends his NBC colleague by wondering why it "takes strong remarks by someone in the media to get a ballclub going." Child, please. This tactic dates back to the Trojan War, when a Greek general obtained an advanced copy of the Iliad and used it to fire up his troops. Everyone always uses the media to motivate them.
9:40: Things I wish Marv would have said just now: "Horry, REJECTED by the rim!"
8:05: Norman hits another three, and raises his arms in the air to tell the crowd to shut up. Marv dryly quips that he was checking with the referee to make sure it was indeed a three.
7:18: Nightmare fuel (click to play).
Also, Savvy John Williams checks in so the Clippers can roll with the 600-pound frontcourt.
6:21: Harper gets kneed in the head accidentally by Olajuwon and has to check out. Rashad later describes the injury as a "whiplash effect." Fratello shrugs it off and suggests he'll be fine. Crazy times in 1993, huh? Anyway, this is a key play.
4:19: Harper checks back in. When he left, the Clippers led by seven. Now, they're down 1.
2:28: Pretty forgettable last minute for Roberts. First, he nearly takes the rim down on a missed dunk attempt. Then, he starts trash talking with Maxwell. Finally, he gives up an easy offensive rebound, then gives Olajuwon a three-point play. Yikes. Olajuwon, by the way, has 25 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots.
2:08: Maxwell scores on a fast-break layup. Timeout, Clippers. Houston's on a 13-2 run since Harper got hurt and now lead by six.
1:30: Savvy John Williams runs away from Smith on a pick and roll switch at the three-point line. Swish. Rockets by seven.
40.7: Jackson doesn't get back and Maxwell gets a fast-break layup. Rockets by 11. Savvy John Williams responds by throwing up a quick three on an inbounds pass that misses.
12:00: Rockets fans are embarrassing themselves with a "Beat LA" chant. That's like Virginia fans shouting "We Want Chaminade!"
11:05: Savvy John Williams fumbles a pass underneath the rim. Rockets by 16.
8:54: Roberts attempts a spin move. It turns into a flip shot over his head without looking at the basket. Olajuwon swats it away.
6:53: Smith, playing in the fourth quarter because of some technical glitch, throws a pass away, and Jackson runs straight into Maxwell for a layup to cut the lead to six. Just when you thought it was over, the Clippers scored 10 straight.
6:34: Another Smith turnover. Your thoughts, Larry Brown? (Click to play)
5:45: After an Olajuwon score, Manning makes one of the more ridiculous plays you'll ever see. Double-teamed in the corner, he tries throwing behind his back along the baseline to Ron Harper in the far corner. It goes out of bounds. This is something only the 1993 Clippers would try in an elimination game. "A most UNUSUAL decision," says Marv.
4:00: A pretty huge three by Smith (who is still playing in the fourth quarter, alert the machines!!!) gives the Rockets a nine-point lead. Both teams are playing three guards right now.
2:56: Smith's punishment for picking up his dribble at midcourt is Harper's long arms in his face. They're tied up, Smith objects, Harper throws the ball at him and they're separated. Double technicals are called.
During a replay, Marv expressed shock that Jackson didn't put "the gyrations of the shake on display" during the sequence. This is Marv's way of saying Jackson wasn't showboating. Long live the 1993 Clippers.
2:22: Conner hits a jumper, then Harper pokes it away from Maxwell, leading to a Jackson layup. The Rockets' lead is only three, and they now have 23 turnovers. Harper is amused.
1:39: Another runner for Manning, and it's a one-point game.
1:17: Olajuwon miss, Harper rebound, Harper finger roll, foul. Clippers lead. Harper celebrates right in front of Rockets fans, because what else do you expect from this Clippers team? He misses the free throw, but here we are, with one minute left and the Clippers poised to eliminate the Rockets.
56.6: Smith needlessly dribbles around for 18 seconds, then throws a low pass to an open Maxwell beyond the three-point line. It doesn't matter because Maxwell nails a three. The man with the broken wrist gives the Rockets a two-point lead. A storybook ending to a storybook series, am I right?
33.9: Jackson misses a runner and everyone on the Clippers goes for the rebound. When Olajuwon gets it, there's nobody back to pick up Smith. Dunk you very much. Ballgame.
20.9: Manning shoots two desperation threes for no reason. Both miss. That's pretty much how the 1993 Clippers would go down. Marv and Mike question Manning's decision-making, wondering how so much "natural talent" can go to waste. In a way, that's the story of the early-90s Clippers. If all their players were healthy and in shape, they'd have been a terror. Alas, they were a mere footnote in the Rockets' rise to dominance.
Houston loses in the next round to Seattle after a few questionable calls cost them in Game 7, but they had proven they were championship-worthy. The same nucleus returned next season, and a mini-dynasty begun. And thus, our tale of opposites ends.