Dream Week: Clutch City Revisited

FD's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be officially released on October 26, but the celebration is beginning early. Inspired, and curated, by Brian Phillips of Run of Play, DREAM WEEK features some of your fastest and most favorite writers trying to crack the mystery of Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets.

Brown Recluse, Esq. is a founding member of the FreeDarko collective and one of the authors of The Undisputed Guide.

One of Jacob’s illustrations in the new book shows Michael Jordan’s immense shadow looming over the other stars of his generation, including one Hakeem Olajuwon. Bomani made the argument earlier this week, but were it not for Jordan, Olajuwon would likely be remembered as the towering figure of the 1990s NBA. Jordan haunts almost every aspect of Olajuwon’s legacy, in specific ways, as well as the more abstract, such as the way that Jordan's hegemony over the league altered our standards for greatness. A key aspect of Jordan's legend is the series of momentous game winners he made, including The Shot (indeed, it’s the jumping off point for an essay in the new book), The First Shot (in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game), The Final Shot (over Byron Russell in the 1998 Finals), or any number of instances where Jordan stepped up and hit a jumper to clinch a victory in the game’s final minutes. Those shots have come to define not only Jordan, but greatness itself. Kobe and every other aspirant to the throne live for those moments where they can prove that they too are clutch, for they realize its centrality to the mission.

A recent NBA.com article listed the top six clutch players of today, which essentially doubles as the biggest stars in the League, defining them as "those players taking most of the last shots." When the stat geeks crunch the numbers to determine who is the most clutch, they look for "game winning shot opportunities".* And when hoops observers rank the most clutch players of all time, they list Dream’s former associate Robert Horry, but not Olajuwon, because Big Shot Rob's clutchness also fit this definition.

A look back at the Rockets' two title runs reveals a great many clutch moments of the Jordan variety. Horry was responsible for some, but certainly not all, of them. Of note are his game-winning jumper in the final seconds of Game 1 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs, as well as his key bucket against the Magic in Game 3 of the 1995 Finals.

Other Rockets who stepped up in the playoffs include Sam Cassell, who scored the last seven Rocket points to clinch Game 3 of the 1994 Finals in New York, a performance Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune proclaimed "probably the biggest for a rookie in the NBA Finals since Magic Johnson's 42-point performance in the deciding game of 1980." Big balls indeed.

Or maybe you recall Mario Elie’s "Kiss of Death" three in Game 7 of the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals against the Suns to put the Rockets up by 3 with 7.1 seconds to play.

A Mad Max guy? You'll make the case for Vernon Maxwell, who hit four of four from distance in the first quarter of Game 5 of the 1994 Western Conference Finals to knock out the Jazz.

Carolina fans like myself fondly remember Kenny Smith’s seven threes against the Magic in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals, including the dagger that sent the game to overtime.

The clutch shots piled up for the Rockets over those two years, earning Houston the nickname "Clutch City," but overlooked in all of this is the most clutch Rocket of them all: Hakeem the Dream. The wide open threes that rained down during that era were made possible in no small part by the interior dominance of Olajuwon. He commanded a huge amount of attention and still managed to up his scoring average from the regular season, averaging 33 points per game in the 1995 playoffs, while also significantly increasing his assists. Cassell admitted, in a rare moment of humility, "How hard can it be, setting up The Man?'' Or conversely, how hard can it be when you're set up by The Man?

In addition to his offensive dominance, Olajuwon owned the paint on defense, grabbing vital rebounds and blocking shots at pivotal moments in the game. The most memorable of these was a play as clutch as any Jordan jumpshot: the anti-gamewinner in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals. It's a moment Knicks fans know all too well. With 7.6 seconds on the clock and down two, the Knicks inbound the ball to John Starks, who gets a screen from Ewing, dribbles to his left, pulls up for the jumper....and is blocked by Olajuwon! Dream had come over on the switch and managed to recover just enough to get his fingertips on the ball, thus sending the ball off course and preserving the 86-84 victory and extending the series to Game 7.

Truth be told, the Block has been the subject of its own "Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?" commercial and is hardly an obscure moment, but it still somehow fails to capture the imagination in the same way as Jordan's jumpers, or even those of Olajuwon's own teammates. So it goes for Dream's greatness, which may not have been as flashy as some of his contemporaries, but which still deserves to shine its own light.

(*To be fair, 82games.com's list of “clutch” stats does include all types of production, including blocks and rebounds. However, the most clutch shot blockers on the list are Andray Blatche and Brendan Haywood, neither anyone’s idea of a hero. By contrast, the leading clutch scorers—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony—are exactly who we talk about when we talk about clutchness and therefore greatness.)

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At 10/16/2010 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most clutch shot blocker?

Tis just not a conversation I have ever had...and I talk and think about hoops far too often...of that I am certain.

Darko is at its very best when it helps reimagine (maybe not the right word) a lense with which to look at the game from.


At 10/20/2010 1:05 PM, Blogger Bouj said...

I will never dispute the clutch-ness of the mid-90's Rockets, but the source of the nickname was not entirely due to that.

After Game 2 of the 1994 West Semis (Rockets blew a 20-pt lead late to go down 0-2 to PHO), the Houston Chronicle had a giant headline: "Choke City". This was the culmination of 2 blown games by the Rockets and the Oilers' legendary disaster in Buffalo.

Houston rallied to win in 7 and then went on to take the title. The Chronicle reversed course and the nickname "Clutch City" was born.

At 11/28/2010 11:30 AM, Blogger mesama said...

To add context to that one play, you gotta remember that John Starks was sizzling hot. He had just nailed something like 5 threes in a row with a hand in his face.

A better measure of "clutchness" is to look at 4th quarter performance in tight games, especially elimination games! That's where Hakeem shined. He would get into his rhythm and take over the game. The number of elimination games Hakeem carried them through those two years (against HOF competition) was just unreal.

At 4/19/2013 4:07 AM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

I can't wait to check those illustration and Jacob's job.
Hostpph community has high hope for the book.


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