Blast From the Past: 1995 Rockets vs Spurs, WCF Game 6

In light of this lockout (you may have heard something about it), it’s time to embark to Youtube to find classic NBA games that catch my attention. With that said, we will begin a series called Blast From the Past by recapping some of the greatest games the NBA has ever seen to both relive the greatness of the moments and also remind us of what we’ll potentially be missing next season.

First up, the 1995 Western Conference Finals, Game 6.

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In today’s game, full of post players as big as Mount Everest and as ripped as professional wrestlers, it’s easy to look at Hakeem Olajuwon and wonder how he could dominate the NBA in the mid 90’s. Slender and tall, but not overwhelmingly so for a post, Hakeem from a distance looked more like Jeff Green than Dwight Howard.

And yet, David Robinson (who, incidentally, was built a lot more like Dwight Howard) spent the 1995 Western Conference Finals getting systematically destroyed by a pissed off Olajuwon, (hopefully) making the MVP voters of 1995 feel like numbskulls. Game 6, the clinching game which propelled the 6th seeded Rockets passed the top seeded Spurs and into the Finals, was a prime example.

On offense, Olajuwon consistently went straight at Robinson attacking him with both turnaround and face up jumpers, quick head fakes, step through moves, and a couple nice spin moves. In stark contrast, Robinson refused to attack the basket when he was guarded by Olajuwon, who spent the game (and really, most of his career) gleefully swatting away players with the audacity to slash toward his basket. Robinson’s first touch in the post came with 2.6 seconds left in the first quarter, when Hakeem had been given a rest for the remainder of the quarter. Robinson made a strong spin move to the basket and threw down a hard dunk, though he was fouled before the shot. But it was indicative of how much Hakeem had dominated Robinson, and broken his spirit, that when Olajuwon began guarding him again in the second quarter, Robinson’s only baskets came off a few mid range two’s.

The most interesting thing about Olajuwon’s game (to me) was illuminated by Bill Walton (who spent most of this game talking with his fellow color announcer Snapper Jones with what sounded like badly hidden contempt). Hakeem had just put the ball on the floor and pulled up, draining a 15 footer over Sean Elliot, when Walton breathlessly commented  “Olajuwon ignores the big guys when he’s watching tape…he watches the guards and mimics THEIR moves.”

In light of the high profile players like Howard and LeBron going to Olajuwon and asking for help in the post, it’s interesting to hear that what Hakeem did was watch guards and try to learn how they operate. But honestly, it makes sense. At 17:56 on the video, Hakeem catches the ball in the post with Robinson guarding him. Instead of attacking Robinson straight up and trying to shoot right over him, Hakeem turns and pump fakes, getting Robinson up in the air, before stepping around him with his non-pivot foot, and flipping a finger roll in off the glass. It’s a beautiful play, and a perfect demonstration of Hakeem’s skill set, but it’s a guard’s move; the kind of play made by a much shorter player compensating for his lack of height by using his speed and brains to get by the giants around him.

Olajuwon played with an unsurpassable skill, intelligence, and grace, rather than the raw force of strength and athleticism that we see from Dwight Howard in today’s NBA. Honestly, I believe it made for a more beautiful game. But it seems unfair that critics have deemed Howard’s work with Olajuwon a failure because Howard hasn’t developed Olajuwon’s repertoire of spin moves and turnarounds. Guys? They play entirely different styles of basketball. Howard can’t maneuver around opponents any more than Hakeem could power straight through David Robinson.

LeBron, however, has the potential to be a different story. How fascinating would it be if LeBron could pick up Olajuwon’s post finesse? LeBron’s game would be built around contrasts: a wing who slashed with force, and a post who moved with finesse.

The former has already been proved unstoppable, when LeBron is on his game. I’m betting the latter, given LeBron’s size and speed, would prove the same.

Two bullet points about the game itself:

  • It’s easy to forget how much of a winner Sam Cassell was. But man…he contributed to some excellent teams. The Rockets during their championship years. The Bucks who made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Timberwolves during the Kevin Garnett apex. The Clippers during that one weird stretch where they were good. The Celtics of ’08. This guy was a few wins away from being another Robert Horry.
  • At 34:08, Rodman commits a flagrant foul on Sam Cassell that the announcers vehemently agree with, saying he clearly wasn’t playing defense on the ball, but rather on Cassell’s body. But to me, Cassell appeared to dress up and dramatize the play. Certainly, Rodman fouled him, but Rodman was faked high into the air, and Cassell, already a much shorter player, ducked down as Rodman came down, absorbing the entire weight of the jump. It looked bad, but a close observer could see that Rodman never “grabbed Cassell’s neck” as the announcer insisted, but rather attempted to grab Cassell to keep him up on his way down. And he appeared to be attempting to make a play on the ball by blocking the shot. Rodman argues his case, then goes to the bench to pout, and yanks his shoes off in disgust, tossing them in the general direction of the court. I forgot how much I miss Dennis Rodman. Congrats on the Hall of Fame, you strange, strange man.
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