1995: Rockets versus Magic (Don’t Ever Underestimate the Heart of a Champion)

Background

Coming off their first NBA championship, the Houston Rockets struggled throughout the regular season in 1995 due to injuries and off-court distractions. At the trade deadline, the Rockets acquired All-Star Clyde Drexler from the Portland Trailblazers in exchange for their starting power forward Otis Thorpe. Houston finished the season with only 47 wins and the sixth seed in the playoffs. An underdog in every series they played, the Rockets first upset the Utah Jazz in five games after trailing 2-1. In the second round, Houston again faced the Phoenix Suns. Despite trailing 3-1 going into game five, the Rockets won the next three straight to advance to the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs and league MVP David Robinson. Houston stole the first two games on the road, lost the next two, but won the final two games to advance to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Orlando Magic were an expansion franchise from 1990. Building their roster through the draft, the Magic grew from a lottery team to a championship contender anchored by young superstar center Shaquille O’Neal. In 1995, Orlando won a franchise-best 57 games, the most in the East. In the first round the Magic easily beat the Boston Celtics in five games. In the second round, Orlando faced the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan had returned from retirement towards the end of the season, but the Magic dispatched the Bulls in six games to move on to their first Eastern Conference Championship. In this series, Orlando faced Reggie Miller and an Indiana Pacers team fresh off a seven game semifinals win over their rival New York Knicks. The Magic defeated the Pacers in seven games to reach their first ever NBA Finals.

Lineups

The Houston Rockets continued to start Kenny Smith at point guard, but Mario Elie replaced Vernon Maxwell at shooting guard at the start of the playoffs. Newly acquired Clyde Drexler started at small forward in the frontcourt alongside power forward Robert Horry and center Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Rockets used a thin bench, with Sam Cassell backing up Kenny Smith at point guard. Chucky Brown served as the third wing behind Elie and Drexler. In the frontcourt, Charles Jones played the role of third big man, and Pete Chilcutt only saw the floor for three minutes in the NBA Finals.

Sophomore point guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway started for the Orlando Magic alongside sharpshooter Nick Anderson at shooting guard. Dennis Scott took over the starting small forward job midway through the season. Former Chicago Bull Horace Grant started at power forward alongside All-Star Shaquille O’Neal at center.

Off the bench, the Magic used Brian Shaw as the first guard off the bench behind Hardaway and Anderson. Anthony Bowie saw limited minutes as the third wing. Jeff Turner served as the primary backup for Grant and O’Neal, and former starter Donald Royal played only one minute in the series.

Game One: Rockets 120, Magic 118 (OT)

The Magic dominated the first half, leading by 11 at the break, but the Rockets stormed back in the third with 37 points in the quarter to take the lead. In the final period, Orlando held serve and led by three with less than four seconds to go when Nick Anderson was fouled. The shooting guard proceeded to miss four consecutive free throws, and Kenny Smith tied the game on a last-second three from the top of the key to force overtime. Late in the extra period, Dennis Scott tied the game on a three, but Olajuwon tipped in a missed lay-up from Drexler to seal the victory. Hakeem finished with 31/6/7/4, Smith finished with 23 points and 9 assists along with a Finals-record seven three’s, and the other three Houston starters combined for 60 points. Shaquille O’Neal led the Magic with 26/16/9, Penny Hardaway scored 26 points of his own, and Brian Shaw chipped in 11 points off the bench, but Orlando fell behind 1-0 after losing this first game at home.

Game Two: Rockets 117, Magic 106

Game two was a disaster for the home team Orlando Magic. The Rockets came out on fire in the first half behind Olajuwon’s 22 points and Cassell’s 14 off the bench, and Houston led by 22 after the second quarter. The Magic attempted to climb back into the game in the second half, and though they were able to trim the lead to single digits multiple times, the Rockets had an answer for every Orlando run. Hakeem finished with 34 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks, Drexler scored 23 points of his own, Horry turned in a double-double, and Cassell finished with a monster 31 points off the bench. O’Neal delivered 33 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists, and Hardaway had 32 points and 8 assists, but the Magic now faced a 2-0 deficit as the series moved to Houston.

Game Three: Magic 103, Rockets 106

Back home at The Summit in Houston, the Rockets used a 12-2 run to close out the second quarter and erase a nine-point deficit. In the fourth, Houston seized control as the Magic struggled from the field–wings Anderson and Scott combined to shoot only 6/25 from the floor. In the final minute, Orlando pulled to within one point, but Robert Horry answered with a three to stretch the lead to 104-100. The Magic had a shot to tie the game with 2.2 seconds to go, but Penny Hardaway’s three wasn’t close. Hakeem finished with 31/14/7, Drexler delivered 25/13/7, and Horry and Elie combined for 37 points for Houston. O’Neal turned in 28/10/6/3, Hardaway and Grant both contributed double-doubles, but the Magic fell behind 3-0 in the series, facing elimination in game four.

Game Four: Magic 101, Rockets 113

The Rockets came out hot to take an early lead, but the Magic responded by closing the gap and taking the halftime lead. In the second half, Houston battled back and regained the lead in the final period, extending it with perimeter shooting and tough finishes around the rim. Hakeem finished with 35/15/6/3 and a three to cap off the game in the final moments, Horry and Elie combined for 43 points, and Drexler had a near triple-double of 15/9/8. O’Neal finished with 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks, Hardaway scored 25 points with 5 three’s, and Shaw turned in 17 points off the bench with 5 three’s of his own, but the Rockets capped off the four game sweep to clinch their second straight NBA championship.

Aftermath

The 1994-95 Houston Rockets became the fourth consecutive team to repeat as champions following the Lakers, Pistons, and Bulls. Hakeem Olajuwon was fittingly chosen as the Finals MVP for the second straight season. In 1996, the Rockets looked to defend their title, but were swept in the conference semifinals by the eventual Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics. Houston would acquire Charles Barkley entering the 1997 season but lost in the Western Conference Finals. To this date, the 1995 NBA Finals is the last championship series appearance for the Rockets.

The Orlando Magic found continued success the following season in 1996, as they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals to face Chicago. The Bulls avenged their loss in the 1995 playoffs, however, and swept the Magic in four games. Shaquille O’Neal would leave in free agency in the 1996 off-season, and injuries would hamper Penny Hardaway for the rest of his career. Though Orlando would sign standout free agents Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in coming years, the Magic would not reach the NBA Finals again until 2009 when they featured an entirely new roster.

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