1994: Rockets versus Knicks (Duel Between Olajuwon and Ewing)

Background

In 1994, the Houston Rockets won 58 games in the regular season, good enough for the second seed in the playoffs behind the 63-win Seattle SuperSonics. Thanks to his play on both ends of the court, Hakeem Olajuwon was awarded his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his first career Most Valuable Player award–he is the only player since Michael Jordan to win both awards in the same year. In the playoffs, the Rockets beat the Portland Trailblazers in four games before facing the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. The Suns won the first two games in Houston, but the Rockets battled back to tie the series and outlasted Phoenix in seven games. In the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets dominated the Utah Jazz in five games to reach their first NBA Finals since 1986, and their third championship appearance overall.

The New York Knicks won 57 games, tied for the best in the East with the Atlanta Hawks (the Hawks earned the number one seed in the playoffs thanks to a tiebreaker). In the playoffs, the Knicks took out their crosstown rival New Jersey Nets in four games. In the semifinals, New York once again faced the Chicago Bulls–this time without the retired Michael Jordan. The Knicks won the first two games, but Chicago tied the series with a game-winner in game three and another victory in the fourth. New York managed to outlast the Bulls in games five and seven to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals against the young Indiana Pacers. In this series, the Knicks easily won the first two games, but the Pacers tied the series with two home wins. In game five, New York choked away a fourth quarter lead, and were forced to win the last two games of the series to reach the 1994 NBA Finals.

Lineups

The Rockets employed a starting backcourt of seventh year point guard Kenny Smith and sixth year shooting guard Vernon Maxwell. In the frontcourt, second year Robert Horry started at small forward alongside former All-Star Otis Thorpe at power forward and league MVP and DPOY Hakeem Olajuwon.

Rookie Sam Cassell was Smith’s primary backup at point guard, and Mario Elie served as the first man off the bench on the wing. Carl Herrera functioned as the third big man on the roster. Players to see limited minutes in the playoffs include Matt Bullard, Chris Jent, and Earl Cureton.

The New York Knicks employed Derek Harper as the starting point guard to fill in for the injured veteran Doc Rivers. First time All-Star John Starks served as Harper’s backcourt mate at shooting guard. Charles Smith started in the frontcourt at small forward alongside veteran bruiser Charles Oakley at power forward and perennial All-Star Patrick Ewing at center.

Off the bench, the Knicks utilized Greg Anthony as the backup guard, with second year player Hubert Davis being used occasionally as the fourth guard. Forward Anthony Mason served as the primary backup at all three frontcourt positions. Anthony Bonner and Herb Williams played sparingly in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Knicks 78, Rockets 85

Playing on their home floor, the Rockets raced out to an eight point lead after the first half in game one. The Knicks fought back in the second half behind physical play, but Houston held New York at bay with a solid defensive effort. The knockout blow came on a three-pointer from Robert Horry, followed up by an Otis Thorpe dunk. Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets with 28 points, 1o rebounds, and 2 blocks, Thorpe delivered a double-double, and Cassell and Herrera combined for 18 points off the bench. Ewing led the Knicks with 23 points and 9 rebounds, and Oakley turned in a double-double, but Starks shot a pitiful 3/18 from the field as New York fell behind one game to none.

Game Two: Knicks 91, Rockets 83

The Knicks climbed back into the series with a well-earned victory on the road. Though game two was tied at the half, New York built a seven point lead going into the fourth quarter. The Rockets quickly recovered and held the lead halfway through the final period, but their offense sputtered as they missed their last 11 shots from the field. Alongside 16 points and 13 rebounds, Ewing anchored the Knicks’ defense with 6 blocked shots. All five New York starters scored in double figures, and Anthony Mason contributed 13 points off the bench. Olajuwon and Maxwell led the Rockets with 25 and 20 points respectively, but Houston only made six three’s on an NBA Finals record 22 attempts. The series now turned to New York tied at one game apiece.

Game Three: Rockets 93, Knicks 89

The Rockets jumped out to a seven point halftime at Madison Square Garden, but the Knicks rallied back and tied the game at 77-77 late in the fourth quarter on a John Starks lay-up. New York pulled ahead with less than a minute to go on a baseline jumper from Ewing, but an unlikely source provided the answer for Houston. Rookie guard Sam Cassell hit a three to put the Rockets up one with 32.6 seconds left and scored the last seven points as Houston held on for the victory. Olajuwon led the Rockets with 21 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and 7 blocks, the other four starters combined for 47 points, and Cassell finished with 15 points. Ewing finished with 18 points on 31% shooting, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists, and Starks and Harper combined for 41 points but the Knicks fell behind 2 games to 1.

Game Four: Rockets 82, Knicks 91

Desperate to even the series, the Knicks jumped out to a 17-2 lead in the first quarter before the Rockets climbed back. In the third quarter, Houston went on a 14-1 run of their own to take the lead, but Derek Harper’s five 3’s kept the Knicks close. Despite shooting 29% from the floor and fouling out late, Ewing provided a few clutch baskets in the fourth to keep the Rockets at bay. Harper led New York with 21 points, Ewing and Oakley both delivered double-doubles, and Starks chipped in 2o points. Olajuwon had a marvelous performance with 32 points (with only 6 missed shots), 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks, but the Knicks tied up the series with one more game remaining in New York.

Game Five: Rockets 84, Knicks 91

The Knicks held sway throughout the first half of game five, stretching their lead to as much as 13 in the third quarter after a Ewing dunk in transition. The Rockets then responded with a 18-5 run to end the third–New York let Houston back in the game with poor shooting in the quarter. In the final period, the Rockets led 80-78 with about two minutes left after a short jumper from Hakeem. The Knicks closed the game, however, on a 13-4 run and took a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston. Ewing finished with 25 points, 12 rebounds, and a Finals-record 8 blocks, Harper and Starks were lethal from outside for 33 points combined, and Mason scored 17 off the bench. Olajuwon led the Rockets with 27 points and 8 blocks, and Otis Thorpe turned in a double-double, but Maxwell and Horry shot Houston out of the game, making only 5/25 field goals combined.

Game Six: Knicks 84, Rockets 86

Back home in Houston, the Rockets jumped out to a 10 point halftime lead in game six thanks to Carl Herrera’s spirited play off the bench. John Starks led the Knicks back in the fourth quarter, and it came down to three big plays for the Rockets. First, Hakeem hit a fadeaway jumper in the league to stave off a Knicks run. Then, Kenny Smith–struggling in the series–hit a huge three to stretch the Rockets’ lead to seven. Finally, with New York down by two, Olajuwon deflected John Starks’ potential game-winning three to preserve the win for Houston. All five of the Knicks’ starters scored in double-figures, led by Starks’ 27 points and five 3’s. Hakeem buoyed Houston with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and Herrera was a perfect 6/6 off the bench, and the Rockets forced a decisive game seven.

Game Seven: Knicks 84, Rockets 90

Game seven was a closely contested affair, and down the stretch several different Rockets’ starters came up with clutch shots in the second half to preserve their lead: Smith with a desperation three that banked in; Horry with an up and under lay-up on the baseline; Olajuwon with a fadeaway in the lane; and Maxwell with a huge three to extend their lead. Starks was largely disappointing for New York, making only 2 of 18 field goals and missing all 11 three’s. Ewing turned in a double-double, and Harper led the Knicks with 23 points. Hakeem was fantastic as usual with 25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 blocks, Maxwell had his best game of the series with 21 points, and Cassell contributed 13 points off the bench as the Rockets clinched their first ever NBA championship.

Aftermath

For his performance in the 1994 NBA Finals, Hakeem Olajuwon was honored with the Finals MVP award. The following season, the Rockets struggled with a lack of chemistry before trading for All-Star Clyde Drexler at the trade deadline. Houston finished with the sixth seed in the playoffs, but the roster gelled in the playoffs as the Rockets beat the Jazz, Suns, and Spurs en route to a second straight NBA Finals appearance.

The Knicks won 55 games during the 1994-95 campaign, but their championship aspirations faded as they lost to their rival Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals. Following the season, Pat Riley left to coach the Miami Heat, establishing the Knicks-Heat rivalry. New York remained a fixture in the playoffs, though it would take them until 1999 to reach the NBA Finals again.

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