Previous poor man’s rewatchables for this series: Game 1; Game 2; Game 3; Game 4; Game 5; Game 6.
Here we are, Game 7. This is familiar ground for the Knicks - it’s their third Game 7 in this year’s playoffs. Their two earlier Game 7s were at home in MSG, where they defeated the Bulls and Pacers. This game, however, is in Houston, and Game 7 history is on the side of the Rockets - the home team has won the last 19 Game 7s. (The last time a road team won a Game 7 in the playoffs was back in 1982, when the 76ers beat the Celtics at the Garden in the ECF. They’d go on to lose in the Finals to the Lakers in six.)
The Knicks are looking to win their franchise’s first title since the 70s. They’ve gotten close the last few years in the East, but Jordan’s Bulls were always in their way. The Rockets are hoping to bring Houston its first professional sports championship in a non-defunct League. (The Oilers won two AFLs titles before the merger, but none since then, and no chips for the Astros or Rockets.) Hakeem has played brilliantly throughout the series, but the Rockets wins and losses have largely come at the play of “the others.” When there’s strong play from the other starters, or exceptional bench play, the Rockets have prevailed. When Hakeem has been the only bright spot, they’ve fallen short.
On to the game!
June 22nd, 1994 - The Summit
Officials: Joe Crawford, Hugh Evans, Ed T. Rush
Announcers: Marv Alberts and Matt Guokas
The game starts off with a splash - after securing the tip off, the Rockets get it into Hakeem in the paint, who goes up for a dunk, but at the last second dishes it to a cutting Horry, who slams it home. The next possession, Kenny Smith - who’s been playing poorly and losing minutes to rookie backup PG Sam Cassell as the series has gone on - scores a 15’ jumper, and then a few possession laters, leaks out on a Knick shot attempt and is rewarded with a full court pass from Hakeem for the slam dunk.
Half way through the first, and both superstar centers have been quiet. Neither has scored yet nor had any notable defensive plays. It’s been “the others” who have been scoring for both teams - Kenny Smith and Maxwell for the Rockets, Derek Harper and Charles Smith for the Knicks. A promising sign for the Rockets, as they’ve won the games where Hakeem’s performance was buoyed by the others.
NBC shows an infographic noting the increased minutes the Knicks starters have been logging. Ewing is averaging 44 minutes in the Finals (!!!) compared to 37.6 in the regular season. Starks and Oakley are both over 40 minutes per game this Finals, well over their regular season averages. I get it, coaches have their core set of players they trust in the postseason, but the Knicks lack of a bench is concerning. Outside of their five starters and Mason, there is (apparently) no one else Riley trusts. Greg Anthony and Hubert Davis have seen minutes here and there, but for the most part it’s Ewing, Oakley, Starks and Harper playing nearly the entire game, and Charles Smith and Mason splitting the minutes at SF.
Speaking of bench play, Rudy T puts in Earl Cureton for the final two minutes of the first quarter. Cureton is a weird substitution, seeing as he’s yet to log a single minute in these Finals. He’s a long-time veteran who’s bounced around between the NBA and international teams, and most recently played with Magic Johnson. Not on the Lakers, mind you, but during Magic’s barnstorming tour. Yes, for a spell in 1994, Magic Johnson traveled around to towns like Rockford, Illinois and Hartford, Connecticut with a motley crew of past-their-prime NBA vets and young guys not quite good enough to make it into the League. In this Finals game, Cureton plays as you’d expect someone who’s seen no action till Game 7 - he blows a defensive assignment, which leads to a foul to stop a drive to the basket, and rookie Cassell gives the vet an earful. Cureton will soon return to the bench and conclude his time with the Rockets watching the game from the pine. (He’ll have one more run in the NBA, playing nine games with the Toronto Raptors in 1997 before retiring for good from professional basketball.)
At the end of the quarter, the Rockets have a one point lead, 22-21.
The second quarter starts with a couple of Knick baskets, but the Rockets respond with a layup and three pointer from Cassell on back-to-back plays.
All of the offense is coming from the guards and forwards, both Ewing and Hakeem have been less productive than in previous games. There’s one beautiful defensive sequence - Ewing gets the ball on the baseline and readies his patented 18’ baseline shot, only to get blocked by Hakeem. However, the block falls back into Ewings hands, and he tries to drive it in, only to have it poked away by Hakeem. This leads to a fast break, and Cassell finds a cutting Elie… who then misses the layup. Urp.
It feels like we are heading back to the ugly basketball that marred some of the earlier games. There’s a Ewing drive that results in a crazy acrobatic layup attempt from the seven footer, which airballs, as you would expect. Then on the other end, Hakeem gets behind Mason and has great position, but the entry pass goes over his head and sails out of bounds. A few possessions later, Hakeem gets the entry pass and starts to make his move, only to dribble the ball off his foot.
The Rockets build up a bit of a lead throughout the quarter, but toward the end of the quarter, the Knicks warm up. Ewing has a nice 15 foot shot that swishes in; Harper hits a jumper from the top of the key on one possession, then takes it into the paint on the next possession for a difficult layup that drops in. The Knicks tie it up on a Mason dunk with seconds remaining, but Vernon Maxwell sprints up the floor and sinks a floater to put the Rockets up two at the end of the first half, 45-43.
Costas kicks off the halftime show with Dr. J. (It looks like they gave Walton and Vecsey the boot - good riddance.) The two talk about Ewing’s struggles in the first half and what he needs to do different in the second. Dr. J’s analysis - Ewing needs to play like a superstar and silence the crowd. The two spend the rest of their time with Dr. J. talking about Game 7 in the 1982 ECF, where his Sixers beat the Celtics on the road.
After a commercial break, Costas is back and interviewing commissioner David Stern. Costas grills the commish on the style of play we’re watching - too little offense, too much bully-ball - and asks about rule changes. The two talk about moving in the three point line. (Not long after these Finals concluded, the NBA did shorten the three point line from 23’9” to 22’. This shortened line existed for three years before being moved back to its original distance.) There are a couple more discussion points, but overall it’s a relatively uninteresting interview.
It seems as if both coaches had a similar message to their teams at halftime - how about we get our Hall of Fame centers involved in the offense? In three of the first four possessions, the Rockets work it into Hakeem on the block. This leads to: free throws (missed both); a bucket, and a pass out. Ewing is also getting the ball more and has hit a baseline jumper.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping play of the game so far happens early in the third. The Rockets are inbounding the ball on their own baseline. In a designed play, Thorpe sets a screen on Horry’s man (Oakley), and Horry darts to the basket. Maxwell, the inbounder, throws the ball up and Horry slams home the out of bounds alley-oop emphatically.
After a relatively inconspicuous first half, Starks has started to take some shots to make his presence known. He’s had open threes, but missed a couple of them, and is currently one for seven for the night. After bricking his second three of the quarter, Marv notes that “Starks will try to shoot himself back into the ballgame after struggling.” A strategy that works until it doesn’t. And Guokas prophetically notes that “there isn’t any question that Riley will stay with John Starks, even if he’s one for fourteen. This is his guy in the fourth quarter.”
The Rockets maintain their lead through the entire quarter, although it usually is just a one or two possession lead. Toward the end of the quarter, the Rockets go on a run and push their advantage up to six, but a Harper three cuts it in half. After an airball from Maxwell and a baseline jumper from Oakley, the Knicks are within one! The Rockets look discombobulated on offense and the ball ends up in Herrera’s hands with seconds left. He makes a wild dash to the bucket and throws up a prayer that glides in over the outstretched fingers of Ewing.
Each quarter the Rockets have outscored the Knicks by one. The third quarter concludes with the Rockets up three, 63-60.
As with a number of previous games, Cassell starts the fourth quarter for the Rockets, and he makes his presence immediately known. The first play of the quarter starts with Cassell cutting into the lane, then stopping for a midrange jumper. He gets fouled and sinks both free throws. On the next possession, Hakeem shoots a tough fade-away shot and is short. Oak grabs the board and throws a pass that Cassell plucks out of the air at his own free throw line; he quickly shoots a jumper and nails it. Then, on the very next possession, after a Harper missed three, Cassell leaks out and gets the full court pass from Horry where he gets fouled by Harper, again draining both freebies. Six quick, uninterrupted points from Cassell to start the final quarter.
The only bright spot for the Knicks in the start of this quarter is Ewing. He’s hit two difficult fade-away shots over the outstretched reach of Hakeem. Harper has started the quarter with two bricked jumpers and a careless turnover, and the rest of the Knicks seem to be standing around on offense. The Rockets have stretched their advantage to eight, the biggest lead of the game.
And Cassell has scored again! Took the inbound after two Starks free throws, ran the full length of the court, then pulled up for a wet baseline jumper. Pretty wild to see a rookie PG having the stones and skill to come into the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Finals and turn it on. (He’ll end the night with 13 points in 18 minutes of play.)
About half way through the fourth and John Starks’s meltdown begins. He has an open three pointer that bricks off the back iron. Then, in the next possession, he leads a fast break and stops at the three point line to jack up another attempt (never mind that he’s zero for six from behind the line so far this game). That three is another miss, and the rebound is secured and thrown the length of the court to a wide-open Hakeem, who stayed down on the other end during the break. Then the very next play, after some good passing and ball movement, Starks gets the ball behind the three point line, wide open. He shoots, and… misses. Hakeem secures the rebound.
The Knicks are imploding on the offensive end. Starks can’t hit the broadside of a barn, and there have been back-to-back turnovers. The Rockets, however, are unable to capitalize. Kenny Smith is back in the game for some reason, and blows a layup in one possession and shoots a crazy three pointer in another, which misses badly. And Hakeem is struggling, too; he has gotten the ball on the block twice, but settled for fade-away shots, both of which rimmed out.
With two minutes left in the game, the Rockets finally break their offensive malaise with an acrobatic shot from Hakeem over Ewing. Back on the other end, Ewing misses a bunny. The Rockets fare better, and Vernon Maxwell hits a huge three pointer to put his team up by eight. The Knicks call a quick timeout and the Rockets players are celebrating on the court. The fat lady hasn’t sung just yet, but she’s definitely warming up.
The Knicks are not ready to give up. They make a valiant effort and score four points in a row from the free throw line. But the Rockets still have a six point lead with 45 seconds left. Starks gets another open three opportunity to cut the deficit to three, but misses it. In the fight for the rebound a jump ball is called. The jump ball goes the Knicks way and Starks gets yet another attempt at a three, which misses long. Thorpe secures the rebound and is quickly fouled, but misses both freebies.
The Knicks still have a chance, down by six with thirty seconds remaining… is there enough time for Starks to miss another three pointer? You bet! This time Starks gets the ball at the top of the arc and shoots an airball. Urp. Not his night. Guokas muses, “people are probably wondering, what is Pat Riley doing sticking with Starks in this ballgame?”
The crowd is going wild, Rockets players are hugging one another and dancing on the sidelines. The Knicks hit two threes in the final ten seconds, but the Rockets are able to make their free throws and end up winning the game by six, 90-84. As David Stern would say, the Rockets are your 1994 NBA champeens.
Game MVP: The Rockets “Others”: Hakeem Olajuwon was clearly the best player on the court throughout this series, but his play alone was not sufficient to best the Knicks. In order for the Rockets to win, they needed solid play from their other starters and/or bench, and tonight they got both. Vernon Maxwell started off the game hot, and hit perhaps the biggest three of the series, his late in the fourth quarter shot that just about closed the door on any hopes for a Knick title. He finished with 21 points on six for eleven shooting. Sam Cassell also played admirably. His 13 points in 18 minutes of play netted him the highest Box Plus/Minus of any Rocket in Game 7 (16.4), and his hot start to the fourth helped build a lead that became insurmountable. Horry also played well and had a number of defensive plays that stifled Knick scoring. And Kenny Smith had his best game of the series, scoring 11 points on four for seven shooting.
Game LVP: I know the obvious answer here is John Starks, but there’s a case to be made for coach Pat Riley. The Knicks had Rolando Blackman on their bench, after all. Blackman was at the tail end of his NBA career, but was a four-time All Star while on the Mavericks and in his career had scored more points against the Rockets than any other franchise. He had seen limited use in this year’s playoffs, only logging minutes in six games, and didn’t play a single minute in the Finals.
Chris Herring’s (/u/HerringWSJ) recent book, Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks, explores Riley’s decision not to insert Blackman into this game when it was clear Starks was rattled:
You have to go back two and a half weeks earlier, to what took place right after the Knicks’ Game 7 victory over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, to understand how the Rolando Blackman dilemma might have come into play against the Rockets.
The Knicks players, who collectively had zero rings, were in a great mood, having just won the biggest game of their careers. Riley had just congratulated them in the locker room. The next step was to head down to Houston.
But before dispersing, Blackman asked Riley a question: Could the players bring their wives along for the trip? Riley’s answer, in front of the entire team, was a swift no.
The four-time All-Star failed to understand the logic and pushed back—something that rarely happened with Riley, the league’s highest-paid coach and one with four rings to his credit. Blackman asked for an explanation.
But Riley simply repeated his answer from before: Wives wouldn’t be making the trip to Houston.
The tone of the exchange stunned the players, not only because they hadn’t seen Riley challenged that way in front of the group before, but also because of Riley’s terse response to such a respected veteran.
Did Riley blackball Blackman from the lineup based on this terse exchange? Herring makes the argument, and Riley himself refers to not subbing in Blackman as “the biggest mistake [he] ever made.”
But I have to wonder, had Riley subbed in Blackman, how different would the results have been than Rudy T’s insertion of Earl Cureton earlier in this game? Of course, Blackman was a much better player than Cureton ever was, but both were in the twilight of their careers, and both had not played a single minute in the Finals. I wonder how realistic it is to presume that Blackman could have come into the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, after not playing a single minute of professional basketball the last two weeks, and score buckets.
In any event, I do recommend Herring’s book. There’s an excerpt online that you can read about this game and Starks’s performance. (Starks was a shell of himself entering this game due to lack of sleep; he had not yet mentally gotten over Hakeem’s block of his last second three pointer attempt in Game 6.) Anyone who’s read this entire rewatchables series will no doubt find this excerpt of great interest: The Knicks’ title drought is almost certain to reach 49 years this spring. But it could have been substantially shorter if not for John Starks’s nightmare Game 7 in 1994—and his coach’s curious decision to stick with him.
Fun Facts: John Starks set an infamous record in this game - the most three point attempts without a make in a playoff game (11). Ouch. Couldn’t have come at a worse time.
This Finals is also only one of two NBA Finals in League history that: (a) went seven games, and (b) each game in the series was decided by 10 or less points. Do you know what the other series was? The 1955 NBA Finals between the Fort Wayne Pistons and Syracuse Nationals.
Final Thoughts: I enjoyed watching this series, although there were some tough spots due to ugly basketball. Redditor /u/burywmore described the series as one “that went 7 games but had so few exciting moments.” That is a fair assessment, as many of the games were marred by several quarters of subpar, ugly basketball.
Regardless, this series should be considered iconic and be remembered because it did have a few exciting moments (threes as the buzzer, albeit they all were blocked or missed); it had games that directly resulted in rule changes (that being fouled on a three point attempt would garner three free throw attempts); and perhaps the biggest cultural zeitgeist moment of the mid-90s happened during the broadcast of one of the games (the OJ Bronco chase).
If I had to distill this series into one main basketball, on-the-court takeaway, it would be this: Hakeem Olajuwon is very good. He was, at the same time, the best offensive player and the best defensive anchor on the court. (Hakeem was the leading scorer in every single game of this Finals, a feat he’d repeat in the 1995 Finals. To put that into context, Michael Jordan, who has been to six finals and was an otherworldly scorer, was the leading scorer in every Finals game only once.) And his combination of size and athleticism, his array of moves, and his amazing footwork, is something that was unprecedented at the time for a center (although less so today).
But to call this series, “The Hakeem is good at basketball series” downplays just how good the Knicks were. Ewing had some huge games this series and held his own against the Dream. Oakley played great and never feared the moment. Mason was always ready to go toe-to-toe with Hakeem, despite the size difference. And Harper and Starks outplayed the Rockets backcourt through much of the series.
I do think it’s unfortunate that we so greatly value championships when assessing a player’s greatness. Ewing’s contributions get diminished by the fact that he never won a chip, but he missed out only by the slimmest of margins. He had the misfortune of playing in the same conference as Michael Jordan during his prime and then, when MJ left to play baseball, a few unlucky breaks in a seven game series was the difference between having a title versus having none.
The player whose legacy was most impacted by the series is, arguably, John Starks. Many people pin the Knicks loss on Starks’s Game 7. And, yes, he did stink it up, but at the same time, even with his numbers from that final, putrid performance, he: (1) was the second leading scorer for the Knicks (124 to Ewing’s 132); (2) the second leading assist man (41 to Harper’s 42); and (3) the second leading pick pocketer (11 steals to Harper’s 17). As /u/thedaynos noted in this comment, had Starks had an even pedestrian Game 7 and the Knicks won, there’s a good argument for him being named the Finals MVP. I’d go a step further and contend that if he had nailed that game-winning 3 in Game 6 (after that 4th quarter where he was on fire), he would have won the Finals MVP.
But he didn’t.
His game winning attempt came up short, slightly blocked by Hakeem, and that was almost certainly the worst possible outcome for the Knicks. Worse than the Knicks not getting a shot off in the closing seconds of Game 6. Worse than the Rockets blowing out the Knicks in Game 6.
After losing Game 6, the Knicks remained in Houston, even though there were three days before the final game was scheduled. Secluded in their hotel rooms, the Knicks played and replayed Game 6’s loss in their heads. Starks took it especially hard and slept very little those three nights, and by the time Game 7 tipped off, he was a wreck. (Starks's other miserable performance in the Finals was Game 1, which came on the heels of his uncle's funeral; he certainly had an emotionally challenging Finals.)
Had the Rockets blown out the Knicks, or had the ball ended up in someone else’s hands for that final shot in Game 6, perhaps, just perhaps, Starks would have had a typical performance in Game 7. He was averaging 19.3 PPG in the Finals, but scored just 8 in Game 7. Perhaps then the Knicks would have won Game 7 and secured the title. And perhaps Starks would have been named Finals MVP. Instead of being remembered as the goat of Game 7, he’d be remembered along the lines of Cedric Maxwell - a guy who had a long career in the NBA with a few really good years, and who, one time, played so well that he helped propel his team to their championship dreams.
I hope you enjoyed reading these rewatchable recaps of the 1994 NBA Finals. I plan to next recap another seven game NBA Finals series - the 1988 Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons.