The NBA playoffs are the last place you would expect to see a team just suddenly catching fire in the, but the 1995 Houston Rockets were no ordinary team.
They were the defending champions, anchored in the middle by center Hakeem Olajuown and run at the point by Kenny Smith. They had talented young guards in Vernon Maxwell and Sam Cassell flanking Smith in the backcourt, and 24-year-old Robert Horry at the beginning of a long, clutch career.
That didn’t mean all went smoothly for Houston. They started 30-17, which was a nice enough record, but the Rockets didn’t look like championship material. The organization didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a big trade in February, acquiring Clyde Drexler from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Houston spent the balance of the regular season getting their new lineup on the same page and entered the postseason as the #6 seed in the West. It still looked like they had started too late though. The Rockets trailed 2-1 in games to the Utah Jazz in what was then a best-of-five first round. They rallied and clinched that series on the road, thanks to 33 points/10 rebounds from Olajuwon and 31 from Drexler.
Nor did things get magically better in the second round—the Rockets fell behind the 2-seed Phoenix Suns 3-1 in games, before winning three straight and yet another road close-out. Houston won Game 7 after trailing by ten at the half and getting a 29/11 game from Olaujowon and 29 more from Drexler.
The San Antonio Spurs and their MVP center David Robinson awaited in the conference finals. It was a strange series, where the Rockets looked ready to make their lives easy, winning the first two on the road. Then they gave it back with two home losses, before again reclaiming homecourt in Game 5 and becoming the first home team to get a win in the sixth game.
The last step was the Orlando Magic, where Shaquille O’Neal was the new young star at center and Afernee Hardaway was a tall, athletic point guard who could do everything—and might have been a Hall of Famer had a career-ending knee injury not come soon after. Orlando made their playoff bones in the second round when they defeated the Chicago Bulls, after Michael Jordan came back from his brief sabbatical in mid-March.
But just as Hakeem had beaten down Patrick Ewing in the 1994 NBA Finals, and taken Admiral Robinson to task in the Western Conference Finals, the Houston center dropped at least 30 in each game of the Finals. Houston won in a sweep.
“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” Those were the words of Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich in the post-Finals celebration, a quote that lives on in NBA championship montages. It was a second straight title that marked the Rockets as the team that owned the “interim” period in the Michael Jordan era of NBA history.