1995 Houston Rockets vs 2001 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2001 Lakers and 1995 Houston Rockets playoff runs are amongst the most memorable for vastly different reasons. Both teams were defending their championships during their runs, and had somewhat underwhelming regular seasons (in comparison to the prior year), but that’s where the similarities end. The Houston Rockets faced 5 elimination games in the first 2 rounds alone, while the Lakers only lost one playoff game during their entire run. But yet they both find themselves matched up in the second round. Let the madness begin.
Dominance vs Destiny
If this corny slogan ever had any merit, it’s in this series. The Lakers went an incredible 15-1 as they stampeded towards the championship. As untouchable as that record was, their point differential was an incredible +13. This means, on average, they were killing teams in the playoffs. Let’s have a look at who they took out specifically:
1st round: 50-32 Portland (Previous season took Lakers to 7 games in conference finals)
2nd round: 55-27 Sacramento (Next season took Lakers to 7 games in conference finals)
Conference Finals: 58-24 San Antonio (NBA champions 2 years prior)
NBA Finals: 56-26 Philly (with MVP Iverson)
On top of going 15-1, the Lakers were only the second team in NBA history to beat 4 teams with 50 or more regular season victories. The first was the 1995 Houston Rockets. Let’s take a look at who they went through:
1st round: 60-22 Utah (Featuring Karl Malone and Stockton. Legitimate case can be made that the Jazz played the Rockets the best in the playoffs)
2nd round: 59-23 Phoenix (Barkley and K.J. went up 3-1 before falling flat on their faces in game 5 and 7 at home)
Conference Finals: 62-20 San Antonio (MVP David Robinson)
NBA Finals: 57-25 Orlando Magic (Shaq and Penny)
There’s no doubt that the Rockets had a tougher run (a fact compounded by them not having home court in any of the playoff series) and they were a team still adjusting to playing with Clyde Drexler who they acquired mid-season. As close as they were to being eliminated in the first 2 rounds, once they reached the conference finals, they won 8 of their last 10 games in the conference finals and NBA finals. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I honestly think the 1995 playoff run by the Rockets was just as (if not more) impressive than the 15-1 Lakers run.
Are you on drugs?
Seriously though, is dominance the only factor is measuring a team’s greatness? The Lakers went through some great teams, don’t get me wrong. But Utah proved how good they were in 97 and 98 when they nearly beat Jordan’s Bulls twice. Barkley’s Suns nearly did that in 93 as well. Once the Spurs upgraded from Rodman to Duncan, they became champions. The 95 Magic went through a rusty MJ and the Chicago Bulls along with a gutsy Pacers team. Winning 5 straight elimination games (3 on the road) is insane. But 15-1 is also insane. I guess there can be different levels of impressive.
The Battle inside: Haven’t we seen this before?
No. Not even close. In 1995, Shaq was a freak of nature, but lacked focus and any post game whatsoever. In 2001, under Phil Jackson, he had added two post moves (a jump hook across the lane, as well as a turnaround to the baseline). Obviously, this isn’t Kevin McHale’s repertoire on the block, but when you coupled this with his strength and explosiveness, he was virtually unstoppable. In the 2nd round against the Kings (with Divac/Pollard/Webber trying to guard him, O’Neal posted back to back 40/20 games). But, with all due respect to the Kings trio, they are not the calibre of defender that Hakeem was. Let’s have a look at what Shaq did against Duncan/Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo.
Conference Finals Vs Spurs: 27 PPG (54% FG), 13 RPG, 1.3 BPG
NBA Finals Vs Philly: 33 PPG (57% FG), 15.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 3.4 BPG
I’m convinced that apart from Jordan in 93, that is the most incredible averages in NBA finals history. And he did it against DPOY Dikembe Mutombo, who you could make an argument as being a better interior defender than Hakeem.
It’s over, right? Shaq is the Most Dominant Ever
Not so fast. Hakeem was equally spectacular in 95.
Conference Finals Vs Spurs: 35.3 PPG (56% FG, 81%FT), 12.5 RPG, 5 APG, 4.2 BPG, 1.3 SPG
This was against David Robinson, who was the MVP of the league that season. If Shaq’s line was the best in NBA finals history, I would argue Hakeem’s is the best in conference finals history. On top of that, he killed The Admiral’s confidence, and his production dropped.
94-95 Regular Season: 27.6 PPG (53% FG), 10.8 RPG, 3.2 BPG, 2.9 TPG
Conference Finals: 23.8 PPG (45% FG), 11.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 4.5 TPG
So not only did Hakeem give it to Robinson offensively, but he did a number on him defensively too. Then in the NBA Finals, Hakeem would square off against a younger Shaq.
Hakeem: 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2 SPG, 2 BPG, 2.3 TPG
Shaq: 28 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 2.5 BPG, 0.3 SPG, 5.1 TPG
Hakeem’s numbers once again are incredible, and you can make the argument that in 95 Shaq was a more mobile and athletic defender. Shaq’s numbers weren’t that bad, but the turnovers killed the Magic.
I can’t pick who has the advantage here, and I honestly don’t think anyone who is objective can. They played so different; Hakeem was versatile and could do so many things, and Shaq was limited but an absolute savage. The only comparable thing between the two was their level of dominance. It’s a wash.
Aren’t we forgetting someone?
Fortunately for the Lakers, they didn’t just have one superstar player. Kobe Bryant was ascending quickly in 2001 and establishing himself as one of the best players in the world. The 2001 playoffs would be a coming out party for Kobe:
2001 Playoffs: 29.4 PPG (47% FG),6.1 APG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG
The Rockets also had an all-time great at the 2-guard in Clyde Drexler, but he was in his 11th season during the Rockets run:
1995 Playoffs: 20.5 PPG (48% FG), 5 APG, 7 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.7 BPG
Clyde was a great complimentary player to Hakeem, but his production wasn’t even close to Kobe’s. This is a huge advantage for the Lakers. You can almost live with forcing Drexler to beat you. You can’t do that with Kobe, as Sacramento and San Antonio found out.
The Lakers role players were incredibly effective in the 2001 playoffs. Derek Fisher shoot 52% from 3-point territory (including 75% during the Western Conference Finals) for the entire playoffs, Rick Fox averaged 10/5/4/2 and played incredible defence, Horace Grant and Robert Horry tag-teaming the power forward positon to combine for 12/12/3/2/2. This means they received incredible production out of every position. The Rockets also had a strong group of role players. Robert Horry in 1995 was far superior to the 2001 version (18PPG, 10RPG, 4 APG, 3 BPG, 2 SPG in the finals) and would pose problems for the Lakers. Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell were an interesting point guard duo, but don’t forget that Fisher was a more than capable defender in 2001 (after he switched over onto Iverson in game 2, he forced A.I. to shoot 41% the rest of the series). Mario Ellie was as tough as they came and almost a mirror image of Rick Fox. The Lakers also have a slight advantage in coaching with the Zen Master and his 13 rings (11 as a coach) over Rudy T.
Verdict: Lakers in 6, and it breaks my heart to say that. I loved that Houston Rockets team. But I have to be realistic and ask myself what match-ups are in their favour. Considering Robert Horry lit up Horace Grant in 95 and would be facing the 01 version (along with the 01 version of himself) is significant, but not enough to swing the series. The Lakers were ruthless, and with the exception of Philly, every team they played rolled over. The Rockets didn’t do that, so don’t expect 30 point blow-outs, but also don’t expect a crazy comeback either. Lakers win.