The 1994 NBA playoffs were an oddity on a lot of levels. There was the absence of Michael Jordan. The Chicago Bulls star was in the first year of his sabbatical where he played minor league baseball—and some suspect, serving a de facto suspension for his heavy gambling on personal golf games and in Atlantic City.
Jordan’s absence opened the door for other teams to dethrone the three-time defending champion Bulls. The path was marked by some extremely compelling matchups and reached its conclusion with one of the most bizarre NBA Finals game in history.
The first round was still best-of-five at this point, and in a rare occurrence for the NBA, the respective #1 seeds each had to play a decisive game. The Atlanta Hawks survived theirs, but the Seattle SuperSonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) weren’t so fortunate. Their loss to the Denver Nuggets was the first time an 8-seed advanced in the NBA playoffs since the institution of the 16-team bracket in 1984.
Chicago pushed the New York Knicks to seven games in the second round, but without Jordan they had no one to deliver a finishing blow and New York survived. The Hawks weren’t as fortunate—they lost in six games to the Indiana Pacers.
Both second-round series in the West went seven games. Denver’s magic ride finally ended in Utah, but not without the Nuggets almost making history again. The Jazz, with John Stockton and Karl Malone, won the first three games before Denver roared back to win three in a row. Utah avoided an epic collapse with a 91-81 win in Game 7.
The Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets were in a battle of the stars, Charles Barkley for the Suns and Hakeem Olajuwon for the Rockets. In the decisive seventh game in Houston, Hakeem was able to shine a little bit brighter, scoring 37 points and hauling down 17 rebounds to lead the Rockets into the conference finals. Houston then summarily dispatched Utah in five games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years.
But no seven-game series, perhaps even including the Finals, has lived on in NBA lore like the New York-Indiana Eastern Conference Finals. With the series knotted at two games apiece, Pacer guard Reggie Miller put on an epic performance in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. He scored 39 points, led the Pacers from 12 down in the third quarter for a win, and trashed-talked Knicks fan Spike Lee, the noted racist filmmaker, who sits courtside for all Knicks games.
New York showed some moxie of its own though, in winning Game 6 on the road. It set up an exciting Game 7 finish. Miller scored 25 points, but Ewing not only scored 24, he hauled in 22 rebounds and the Knicks survived, 94-90.
It would take a lot to match Reggie, Spike and the Pacers-Knicks battle of 1994. The coming Houston-New York matchup for the NBA title did its best, and got some help from an incredible off-the-court moment.
The Finals were a revenge matchup for Olajuwon. He would go toe-to-toe with Knicks’ center Patrick Ewing. The two were old college rivals and Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas beat Hakeem’s Houston Cougars in the 1984 NCAA final. Now it was payback time.
After splitting the first two games in Houston, Olajuwon came up with a 21 points/11 rebounds/7 blocks/7 assists performance in Game 3 to help reclaim homecourt advantage for the Rockets and put the pressure on New York. Ewing and power forward Charles Oakley responded with a combined 35 rebounds in Game 4 and tied the series.
Game 5 would be arguably the most unforgettable in Finals history—as a basketball game it was pretty good, with New York winning, but its memorable moment was a news cutaway to O.J. Simpson driving a White Bronco down the Los Angeles freeway before being arrested by police.
The Knicks took a 3-2 series lead back to Houston and in Game 6, they trailed by two points, but with a chance to tie or win on the final possession. Pat Riley called the number of guard John Starks for a three-pointer from the corner. It was blocked by Olajuwon.
That air ball was a sign of things to come. Starks shot 2-for-18 in Game 7, and even though it was a good game throughout, the Rockets were able to secure the championship with a 90-84 win. Ewing had played well in the Finals, but in most games Olajuwon was a little bit better. He was Finals MVP and not only had a ring, he had the revenge he’d waited ten years for.
The 1994 NBA playoffs haven’t taken a fabled place in the game’s lore. There was no dominant team building a legacy, even though the Rockets would win a second straight title a year later. But there was a lot of very competitive basketball, and one wild night of a White Bronco driving down the freeway in the midst of an NBA Finals game that these playoffs leave as their legacy.