In 1994 the Houston Rockets won the franchise’s first ever NBA championship. How’d they do it? Wellllllll, some would say they merely capitalized on Micheal Jordan leaving the sport for and then the top western seed Supersonics getting upset in the first round of the playoffs. And yeah, sure that stuff helped, but the Rockets were also pretty good.
Hakeem Olajuwon was their All-Star, one of the most, if not the most, talented centers in the league. And his supporting cast, while not All-Stars, was made up of hard working, clutch players.
Kenny Smith could get hot beyond the arc. Robert Horry was nearly traded midseason, but instead of being resentful, which we all would have understood, he became an offensive weapon. Bad Boy Vernon Maxwell could take over games and hit big shots — which he did at a pretty crucial moment in the ‘94 Western Conference Semis.
The Rockets were down 2-0 to the Suns, and had earned a nickname that threatened to stick: Choke City. But in Game 3, Maxwell’s 31 second-half points won the game, and the series momentum. Rockets took Phoenix out in seven games and changed their nickname from Choke City to the triumphant and equally catchy: Clutch City.
The Rockets didn’t just rely on starters, new addition Mario Elie was a versatile workhorse who could play big guard or small forward. Rookie Sam Cassell could create off the dribble or hit the long shot, his choice. There was no timidness about him, and good thing too — in Game 3 of the finals, with the Knicks up by two with less than a minute left, Hakeem kicked it to an open Cassell on the perimeter, and without hesitation the rookie sunk it. Tomjanovich said that shot “may have been the key to the whole series”
With one Larry O’Brien trophy on the shelf, the Rockets weren’t done yet. In 1995 they traded for Clyde Drexler, giving Hakeem had another All-Star by his side, one with whom he just happened to have played with in college.
But they weren’t guaranteed that second title, in fact when they finished 6th in the West, it seemed like they were done. But hang on...
Houston took it to do-or-die Game 5 with Utah, and won. They went down 3-1 to Phoenix, and then came back to win in seven games. And in the NBA finals? They promptly swept the young Shaq-Penny duo and earned themselves another title, the lowest seed in NBA history to ever do it.
Only problem? Being so high set them up for a big fall.
The Rockets stuck to their post-first offense for the next five years, adding other aging stars beside Hakeem. First Charles Barkley, then once Drexler retired, Scottie Pippen. And while on paper those looked like good moves... they didn’t yield success.
Some of that was due to some of that was due to bad luck, like when John Stockton sunk a series-winning buzzer beater in the 1997 Western Conference Finals. And some of it was due to Pippen not gelling with the Rockets’ style of offense, getting frustrated and demanding a trade. And some of that was due to injuries. Barkley suffered a career ending quad tear in 2000.
And so within five years of winning back to back championships, the Rockets suddenly found themselves left out of the playoffs in 2000. And in 2001. And in 2002. And in 2003— you get what I’m saying.
Clutch City was no more. The Rockets had collapsed.