G olden State Warriors took a commanding 2-0 lead in the WCF against the Rockets, after winning the game 99:98. In both contests, Houston was close, but the quality of their opponent didn’t allow them to steal the home-court advantage.
It looks like the best regular season team is unstoppable on its way to the championship, but history teaches us that you simply cannot write off the Rockets. Once upon a time they were simply known as the Clutch City.
This nickname was earned during the 1990s when the Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, won 2 titles and made countless memorable shots while winning some series that looked lost for them.
From Choke City to Clutch City
In 1994, Houston won the franchise-high 58 games and Hakeem was named the NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. The roster also included Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, rookie Sam Cassell, Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell. Good players, but none of them was a star, and it was unclear who the second banana was.
After defeating the Blazers in the first round, they found themselves in the 0-2 hole after losing both games at home against the Suns’ team featuring Barkley, Johnson and Majerle. The Rockets blew a huge 4th quarter lead and were somehow game losers. Ironically, they were called the Choke City.
But Hakeem had something to prove, just like the other guys. The Rockets were victorious after seven games, and then eliminated Utah in the Conference Finals to reach the first finals since 1986. This time nobody could stop Houston.
Olajuwon outplayed Ewing and the Knicks, winning in Game 7, and he brought the first NBA championship to the city of Houston. To this date, The Dream is the only player to win the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP awards in the same season.
Next year the Rockets were struggling and forced to make a painful mid-season trade for superstar Clyde Drexler, losing their defensive stalwart Otis Thorpe. Being just the 6th-seeded and finishing with the mediocre 47-35 record, nobody saw them as serious contenders.
When they lost Maxwell, the second leading scorer from the 1994 championship squad after Game 1 in the first round, the things looked ugly and bleak for Houston.
But, the Clutch City spirit was not to be underestimated. The Rockets defeated the 60-win Jazz team 3-2, then the old victims Suns 4-3 after being down 1-3 and winning Game 7 on the road by a single point (115:114), highlighted by Mario Elie’s clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds.
The shot is known as Kiss of Death among the NBA fans.
In the conference finals, they crushed down their bitter Texas rivals, the Spurs 4-2, after winning all three games in the legendary Alamodome. Hakeem stomped the reigning league MVP David Robinson, humiliating San Antonio’s center a couple of times.
Finally, in the NBA Finals Houston swept the young Orlando squad with Shaq, Penny and Dennis Scott and repeated as champions, forcing their coach Rudy Tomjanovich to famously say “Don’t you ever underestimate the heart of a champion!“
Clutch City 2.0.
20 years later the Rockets are in the conference finals again, and again they are underdogs. Just like in the championship days, Houston is down in the series again. They have a great shooting guard in James Harden and a great center in Dwight Howard.
Those two play the roles of Drexler and Olajuwon. Kevin McHale, just like Tomjanovich, was a magnificent basketball player and All-Star, before becoming a head coach.
I know that Golden State is a heavy favorite to win the title, but don’t forget that Houston lost two games by 5 points combined. Klay Thompson is completely neutralized by the Rockets’ defense, shooting 36,4% from the field and ice-cold 14,3% from downtown (via basketball-reference.com).
Harden was near triple-double in both games. Howard is not fully ready, and they are weakened without Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas. But there is an aura surrounding this team.
We thought they were dead and done after being down 3-1 against the Clippers and losing by 19 points in the third quarter of Game 6. Suddenly, D12 locked the paint just like he used to in the Magic jersey, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer were raining from behind the arc, Jason Terry was doing Jason Terry stuff – nailing 3-pointers and irritating Chris Paul. In less than no time, Houston completed one of the greatest comebacks ever. Sounds familiar?
Sure, the Clippers dropping form and very poor bench had something to do with it, but hadn’t the Rockets improved their game, that wouldn’t have been important.
The Blueprints Against the Warriors
The Dubs are a better and deeper team than the Clippers, but there are blueprints how to slow them down and defeat them. Memphis showed some of their flaws, and Houston continued in the Oracle arena. Going to Texas, the Rockets must make the following adjustments to have any chance to return in this series:
1. Continue to make Thompson’s life miserable using Ariza and Brewer. Steph will score his points, one way or another, but Klay is not really good when he has to create his own shots.
2. Force Curry to work on defense by running more spot up actions for Jason Terry (25 for 64 from downtown in the playoffs, or very high 39,1%)
3. Try to slow down the pace, at the cost of stagnating your offense. The Rockets don’t have an overpowering frontcourt like the Grizzlies, but the Warriors are at their best when you try to run and play fast against them.
4. Use Terrence Jones more and his skillset against Draymond Green. T-Jones is taller and bulkier than Green and getting the Warriors’ forward into the foul trouble is a huge step towards the win. Golden State’s defense is 20-25% worse when Draymond is on the bench.
5. Create more uncontested shots for Ariza (the sniper in the postseason) and the immortal Josh Smith (he will shoot no matter what, so it’s in your interest to make it easier for him).
6. Prevent second chance points for the Dubs by controlling boards. Easier said than done, but Houston has one of the best rebounders and rim protectors in Howard. It’s about time for him to shut his critics and show the basketball world that he is not soft. That is, if the critics are wrong.
Right now the Warriors have 80% chances to advance to the Finals, but the beauty of basketball lies in the improbable reversals and returns to life when it’s not expected. I’m not saying that’s gonna happen, and it is also possible that Golden State will sweep Houston, but after defeating the LA Clippers, the Rockets at least deserve recognition and some trust.
Don’t you ever underestimate the Clutch City’s spirit.