Sunday May 25th, 1997
You can make the argument that the 1996-1997 team was the best Rockets team not to win the championship, and they didn't even make the NBA Finals after losing in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games to the Utah Jazz. Though it must be said that it should have gone 7 games if not for a terrible non-call on Malone's mugging of Drexler that allowed Stockton to hit the game winner in Game 6. Two games before that, Eddie Johnson hit the 3rd best shot in Rockets history; behind Ralph Sampson and Mario Elie of course. That years team of course didn't look the same as the Championship teams from 94 & 95 because on August 19th, 1996 the Rockets traded Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant, Sam Cassell, and Robert Horry to the Phoenix Suns for Charles Barkley and a 2nd round pick. A month later Kenny Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons and the only starter left from the 1994 Championship team was Hakeem Olajuwon.
Despite Barkley and Drexler missing a combined 49 games, the new look Rockets won 57 games, finished as the 3rd seed in the West, were 5th in the league in points per game, 6th in total rebounds, and 2nd in three-pointers made. They obviously had top end talent with 3 future Hall of Famers, but their depth deserves some credit too; they had 7 players average at least 9 points per game.
To reach another meeting with the Jazz, the Rockets swept the Timberwolves in the 1st round and put away their arch nemisis at the time, the Seattle Supersonics, in 7 tough games. The stage was now set for another classic Rockets vs. Jazz series. The Rockets won their last two playoff series vs the Jazz, 4-1 in the 1994 Western Conference Finals and 3-2 in the 1st round of the 1995 Playoffs. That years Jazz team though had learned it's lesson and took the first two games of the Western Finals by an average of 13.5 points per game. The Rockets rebounded in Game 3 and blew out the Jazz 118-100 to cut the series to 2-1. The win set up a crucial Game 4, if they lost, they'd almost certainly be done in 5 when the series headed back to Utah.
The Jazz led 53-48 at half, but the Rockets battled back with a 27-23 3rd quarter to cut the lead to 1 point going into the 4th quarter. Olajuwon had another signature game with 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, and 3 steals. Barkley also had a big game for the Rockets with 20 points and 16 rebounds. His counterpart Karl Malone did not play as well, finishing with 22 points but shot only 10-28 (35%). John Stockton led the way for the Jazz with 22 points on 9-12 shooting with 8 assists and 4 rebounds.
The first 3 games of this series weren't very competitive, but Game 4 went down to the very last second. With the game tied at 92-92, the Rockets had the ball at midcourt with 6.7 seconds left. As the NBC announcers point out, they were going to take the last shot, so it was win or overtime. On the court for the Rockets were Olajuwon, Barkley, Drexler, Johnson, and Maloney; the reported plan was to go to Hakeem early, if he was covered, then look for Barkley or Eddie Johnson. On the play, Johnson inbounded the ball to Maloney, Maloney passed it to Drexler who got trapped, Drexler back to Maloney, Maloney passes over to Johnson who puts up the shot over Hornacek with .3 seconds left...nailed it!
In Game 3 Johnson was the hero with 31 points on 12-17 shooting, including 5-8 from behind the arc. Game 4 was different, Johnson was 1-4 from the field before he nailed the game winner. When asked what it felt like to be on the court and be part of a win like that, Charles Barkley responded, "It was surreal. I don't know what it means, but I heard somebody say it the other day and it sounded pretty damn smart, so that's what it was. Yeah, it was surreal."
Unfortunately, the Jazz returned the favor in Game 6 with John Stockton's game winner to end the series and send Utah to their first NBA Finals. The Game 6 loss didn't just end that season however, it ended the Rockets run as one of the Western Conference elites. Many new players like Scottie Pippen and Steve Francis would join the team, but the Rockets didn't win another playoff series until the 2008-2009 season; an 11 season draught.
Johnson will obviously never have his number retired at Toyota Center, but that shot was incredible and one of the best moments in team history.