Wednesday April 29th, 1981 - Western Conference Finals Game 5
The 1980-81 Rockets team wasn't a juggernaut and finished the season with a 40-42 mark. During the regular season their longest win streak was only 5 games, they finished 11th in points scored, and 14th in points allowed in a 23 team league. They were a middle of the road team that certainly no one took as a huge threat. It was also the start of a transition period for the Rockets. The 1980-81 season was Rudy T's last season, Calvin Murphy only played 2 more seasons, and Moses Malone was lost to free-agency after the following season. Speaking of Malone, if they had any chance of making a run, it'd have to be on the big shoulders of the former MVP. Malone would lead them past Kansas City to the NBA Finals and our #7 Rockets game of all-time.
Malone was in his prime during the 1980-81 season and dominated the league. Moses finished 2nd in the league in points per game, 1st in total rebounds, 2nd in minutes played, and 2nd in free throws made. The Rockets have been a blessed team when it comes to having dominant big men and Moses Malone in my opinion is the 2nd greatest in team history. The 1980-81 season was one of Malone's best years. He had his 2nd highest point average at 27.8, along with averaging 14.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1 steal per game.
Probably the biggest thing people remember and talk about in regards to the 1995 championship team, are the long odds they overcame to win the title. That 1995 team was the 6th seed and had to win all for 4 rounds on the road vs a team who won at least 50 games. However, most fans forget that the 1980-81 team was also the 6th seed and actually finished the regular season with a losing record; no one thought they'd beat the Lakers in the 1st round, who won 14 more games than Houston, much less take the Celtics to 6 games in the NBA Finals.
Back then, the first round was only 3 games. The first round against the Lakers was very close, with each game being decided by 5 points or less. These weren't the same Lakers that won the title the season before, but it was still a very talented team.
After defeating the Lakers, the Midwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs were next. The Rockets split the season series 3-3 with the George Gervin led Spurs, so despite being road underdogs, they had a chance. Home-court advantage didn't mean much though with the road team in the Spurs/Rockets series winning 5 of the 7 games. This included the Rockets winning Game 7 at San Antonio 105-100 to reach the Western Conference Finals.
In the Western Conference Finals the Rockets actually faced a team with a record equal to their own. The Kansas City Kings were also 40-42 during the regular season and had upset Portland and Phoenix to advance to the Western Finals. The Kings were led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, Phil Ford, and Reggie King; no matter who won, the Celtics were going to be huge favorites. The Rockets dominated the series winning Game 1 97-78 and taking the 7 game series 4-1. In fact the Rockets 4 wins were by an average of 10.75 points, the Kings didn't stand a chance. After winning Game 1 in LA during the first round, winning 3 road games vs San Antonio in the 2nd round, it was fitting that the Rockets clinched their first NBA Finals trip in Kansas City with a 97-88 win in Game 5.
Despite eventually losing to the Celtics in 6 games, the 1981 Rockets will always be remembered for doing what no other Rocket team had ever done. In particular, Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals should be considered the first step in the Rockets becoming an upper level NBA Franchise.
Here's the list so far
10. T-Mac 13 in 35 vs San Antonio
9. 22nd Win In A Row
8. Eddie Johnson's Game-winner vs. Utah
7. 1981 Western Conference Finals - Game 5