Confrontation: The Mini-War
Seattle’s shocking loss to Denver in the first round of the 1994 NBA playoffs meant that Houston had home-court throughout the playoffs. The Houston Rockets disposed of Clyde and the Trailblazers while Charles Barkley’s 56-point performance against Golden State completed the sweep setting up the showdown.
Whoever emerged from their series against the Suns could possibly have an easy route to the NBA Finals. The Houston Rockets were blessed to have an MVP while the Suns were having some issues. Barkley was injured and there were talks about his potential retirement because of those injuries. None of that seemed to matter as the series began at the Summit. What happened in the first two games was a recurring pattern. Houston started strong and took a double-digit lead. Phoenix came back to win.
After Game 2’s embarrassing collapse, the Houston Post decided to make a mockery of the city’s sports teams by labeling Houston as “Choke City.” It made sense then. The Oilers blew a 35-3 lead. The Astros couldn’t get to the World Series. Even the University of Houston Cougars lost two NCAA Titles with Hakeem and Clyde on the squad as Phi Slamma Jamma. So, it made sense to say that. Meanwhile, Phoenix was so confident about their team being up 2-0 that their newspaper predicted a championship for them that year. This was when Phoenix was up 2-0 in the series.
But, somewhere on the flight from Houston to Phoenix, the momentum changed. Houston stunned Phoenix in Game 3 led by Vernon Maxwell. The Houston Rockets would win Game 4 as well to even the series despite an iconic dunk from Kevin Johnson over Hakeem Olajuwon. But as Game 5 came around, there was a villain that had been tagged in the series.
During the Houston Rockets’ Game 3 win, Mario Elie converted a basket for an And-1. He then taunted Danny Ainge, who committed the foul. Ainge, who had a notorious reputation of being a pest and someone not to back down decided to take action. Suffice to say, after Olajuwon sealed the victory with a slam, Ainge took the ball out of bounds and fired a pass right off of Elie’s face. I won’t play link the clip since we’re talking about Mario Elie in a positive light here, but Ainge would be fined $5,000 for the act.
To say it was a gutless move is one thing. But whatever the case, the series had clearly shifted. Each team split the next two games before the Houston Rockets would carry out a Game 7 victory and would go on to win the NBA Championship.
Fast forward a year later. The Rockets are the defending NBA champions. But as the sixth seed, with future Hall-of-Famer in Drexler, the basketball landscape and the nation didn’t seem to favor them. Michael Jordan had returned to the Bulls while the Orlando Magic were seen as a future dynasty and the Phoenix Suns finished one win shy of 60 to take the third seed.
In my opinion, the 1995 NBA Playoffs are the best ever because, for one year, it wasn’t Michael Jordan and the Bulls plus everyone else. It was 16 teams that showcased their talent even with the best in the game. The clutch shots, the iconic moments, plus some tough series, all made the NBA peak at its highest of 1995.
In this case, the Suns were fresh off a sweep of Portland while Houston had to grind out a five-game series win over Utah. For the second straight year, the Rockets and Suns met in the Western Conference Semifinals. The only difference was that Phoenix had the home-court and unlike the Rockets in the first two games in 1994, the Suns would take advantage of their opportunity. Then, they stole a critical Game 4 to go up 3-1 in the series.
Today, a 3-1 series lead isn’t a guaranteed lock. But at the time, you would’ve thought the series was over as only four teams in NBA history up to then overcame that deficit to win. The last time it happened was in 1981 when Larry Bird guided the Celtics back against the Julius Erving-led 76ers in what has been regarded as the greatest playoff series ever.
Once again, the Phoenix Suns were confident. But, they might’ve remembered about the year before. After the Suns won Game 4, the words they said expressed how they were feeling.
"Charles Barkley: “Majerle, what business are we in?” Dan Majerle: “The butt-kicking business.”"
"Kevin Johnson: “There’s no way.. I mean, Houston is a great city, but we don’t plan on coming back.”"
"A.C. Green: “Collapse won’t happen.”"
The Suns had every right to be confident. But, there is an interesting theory that I feel describes what happened next. When you’re up 3-1 in the series, you find yourself one win away from advancing and getting rest.
You say how confident you are and feel good about your chances. Yet, you also are aware of what happened the previous year. The last thing you want to do is give a team with everything to lose in a corner of hope. That team will play like there’s nothing to lose and it’s your responsibility to try and beat them to finish them off. You get three chances to finish the job
Suppose you lose that first game. You still have the series lead, but now, the other team has that hope. You treat the loss as a bad game, refresh, and try again. In the midst of that, however, you suddenly develop a feeling that instead of wanting to win the series and finish them off, you have to win the series and finish them off. You’re up by one game, but you can’t allow them to break even because if they do, you wasted two chances.
That’s where the pressure comes in and if you lose that second game, it now boils down to your third and final chance. The other team has momentum and they can sense the opportunity while it comes down to whether you can come through and hold off a team on a roll.
This also plays into consideration the future. If you win, you don’t have much time to rest and you will certainly need to regroup and get ready for your next series while continuing your quest for a title. But if you lose, the pressure that had been building over the past few games cracked and you exploded.
That’s what happened to the Suns. The Suns could’ve knocked out the Rockets with a buzzer-beater three by Wesley Person. But Houston won in overtime. The Suns could’ve won in Game 6, but Houston ran away with the win. With momentum on Houston’s side and pressure on Phoenix’s side, it would all culminate in an epic Game 7.