Wednesday May 21st, 1986 - Western Conference Finals Game 5
We're almost done with our countdown, thanks for checking back each week as we re-live Rockets history with the Top Ten Rockets games of all-time. Before we recap game # 3, let's take a quick look back at our top 10 so far.
10. T-Mac 13 In 35
9. Rockets Win 22 In A Row
8. Eddie Johnson's Buzzer Beater
7. Rockets Beat Kansas City For A Trip To Their 1st Finals
6. Mario Elie & The Kiss Of Death
5. Game 4 - 1995 NBA Finals
4. Game 6 - 1994 NBA Finals
3. Ralph Sampson's Buzzer Beater
Coming into the 1985-1986 season many Rockets fans hoped that their team would take the next step and be a real title contender. The Rockets were knocked out in the first round in 5 games by the Utah Jazz the season before, but with another year under the belt of the young twin towers, there was a strong belief that this team could be special. The Rockets delivered on that hope early on and went into the all-star break at 33-16 and ended the season with a 51-31 record; good enough for 1st place in the Midwest Division and the 2nd overall seed in the West.
The Rockets were a balanced team overall but were led by their offense. At 114 points per game the Rockets offense ranked 6th in the league while their defense came in at 13th. Speaking to their balance, the team had 6 players average at least 10 points per game. Leading the way of course were Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson who both averaged double-doubles and helped the Rockets finish 3rd in the NBA in rebounds and 3rd in blocks. Olajuwon in particular was great with per game averages of 23 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. Also chipping in with a big year was guard John Lucas (who never started more than 50 games in a season after this year), with 15.5 points and 8.8 assists.
Going into the playoffs they took on the 37-45 7th seeded Sacramento Kings in the first round and promptly swept the Kings by an average of 14 points per game. The second round would prove to be a tougher test against the 47-35 Denver Nuggets who finished 2nd in the Midwest division. Against the Nuggets, the Rockets were facing a higher scoring team (4th), who featured a player averaging 29.8 points per game in Alex English. Home-court proved to be the crucial factor between the two evenly matched teams; the home team won every game. The Rockets won game 6 in double OT and took the series 4-2 to advance to the Western Conference Finals against the defending NBA Champion LA Lakers.
If you looked at just the seeds, this seemed like an even matchup between the first and second ranked teams. However, this was the defending NBA champion and a team that finished with 11 more wins during the regular season. Like the Nuggets, the Lakers were also a higher scoring team (1st) than the Rockets, but also happened to give up fewer points per game than Houston. Magic, Kareem, Worthy; this team was a juggernaut. They played the part of the better team in Game 1 with a 119-107 win at home; but the momentum would not last. The Rockets stole the home-court advantage in Game 2 with a 10 point win and then held serve at home with 2 wins by an average of 9 points per game to stun the Lakers and take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
Game 5 was a much closer game and closer to what fans had hoped for with a series between the top two seeds. With the game tied at 112-112 and only 1 second left, everyone assumed that Game 5 would head to over time. I'm sure most Laker fans and even the Laker players were already thinking about winning the game in overtime and sending the game back to Houston for Game 6; only the formality of a final heave at the basket remained. On what would be the final play, the Rockets had the ball at mid-court, Rodney McCray passed the ball in to Ralph Sampson who had his back to the basket and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defending him. Sampson leaped, caught the ball in mid-air, spun and blindly tossed the ball towards the basket all in one motion. In a scene that played out like a movie in slow-mo, the ball hit the front of the rim, hung tantalizingly in the air, glanced off the back rim and fell through the basket as time expired, sending Houston to the NBA Finals and ending the Lakers four-year run of Western Conference dominance.
It was improbable, it was amazing, and it was breath-taking. The Rockets players and coaches went into a frenzied celebration while the Laker fans watched in silent shock and Michael Cooper famously laid on the court with his hands on his head. I'm sure most of those same people still thought the Lakers would come back from down 3-1 until the last second had ticked off and the shot went through the hoop.
The twin towers and the rest of the Rockets would eventually lose in 6 games to Larry Bird and the Celtics, but gave hope to the hometown fans of what could happen in the future. Of course Sampson's knee forced the Rockets to re-tool the roster before an Olajuwon led team would eventually win an NBA title. But what happened in 94-95, believing that a Houston team could beat team a New York team with Ewing and a young Magic team with Shaq even when everyone doubted them; that faith and belief started in 1986.