(Main photo image credit: NBA)
20 years ago, the 1995 NBA Finals pitted the defending Champion Houston Rockets against the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic. But the real war was to be played in the middle of the paint as the world witnessed two of the greatest centers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, battle it out for the title.
This match-up of elite 7-foot big men featured one rising force of nature that could physically overwhelm the opposition against an already established star in his physical prime - a smooth operator who left opponents in the dust with his quick and skillful moves in the low post.
As far as big men styles go, Shaquille O’Neal represented what a power center looked and played like, with a healthy dose of athleticism mixed in, while Hakeem Olajuwon exhibited a rare blend of grace, versatility, strength, and artfulness. The buzz going into the 1995 NBA Finals was that for the second straight year the basketball world was going to witness two future Hall of Fame centers (Olajuwon went up against Patrick Ewing in the 1994 NBA Finals) battling each other underneath for the title.
People were comparing this Shaq-Hakeem matchup to the Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain clashes of the 1960s. When you think about it, this was the last NBA Finals that featured two great centers, at their peak, facing off against each other. It was Brute versus Delicacy. Brawn going up against Quick. Basketball lovers all wanted to see what big man would outmaneuver the other.
The 10-year veteran Olajuwon and 1994 NBA MVP winner was carrying the defending champion Houston Rockets back to the Finals with a shot at repeating, much to the surprise of many, given that Houston only won 47 games on the year and was the No. 6 seed entering the playoffs in the difficult Western Conference that featured worthy threats like David Robinson and the Spurs, Charles Barkley and the Suns, Karl Malone and the Jazz, and Gary Payton and the Sonics. Meanwhile, the young, hip, and upstart Orlando Magic led by Shaq, Penny Hardaway, and Co. came running into the Finals – having eliminated Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls along the way – looking to stamp their case as pro basketball’s “Next Great Team.”
The Rockets however, had other ideas and set the tone of the series right away in Game 1. With Orlando leading by three points late in the fourth quarter, Magic two-guard Nick Anderson walked up to the foul line and missed four free throws in a row and gave Houston new life. On the next possession, Rockets guard Kenny Smith and current TNT analyst nailed a three-pointer late to send it into overtime and Hakeem ended up with the game-winning bucket off of a tip basket that led to a Rockets surprising Game 1 win.
Losing that first game of the Finals -- or should I say blowing that first game -- seemed to put some serious doubt into the minds of the young Magic team and unfortunately they never recovered. The outcome of Game 1 ultimately doomed Orlando. In Game 2, the Rockets jumped out to a 22-point lead at halftime and they never looked back winning again on the road 117-106, led by Hakeem’s 34 points and 11 rebounds to Shaq’s 33 points and 12 rebounds.
Late in a tight Game 3 in Houston, Rockets forward Robert Horry nailed a big three-pointer with 14 seconds remaining to push the Rockets lead to 104-100 and they held on to win by three points. Game 3 might have been the best duel that these two star centers had against one another throughout the series with Shaq posting a 28 point, 10 rebound, six assist, three block gem, though Hakeem was efven more superb with 31 points, 14 rebounds, and dishing out seven key assists.
Game 4 would be the title clincher for Houston as they pulled away late in the fourth quarter to win 113-101 and sweep Orlando for their second straight title. Before the celebration would get underway at The Summit, Hakeem knocked down an uncharacteristic three-pointer in the corner to finish Orlando off. While Hakeem outscored Shaq in all four games, Young Shaq was mightily impressive, averaging 28.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 6.6 apg, 2.5 bpg while shooting 59%. He overpowered Hakeem at times and held his own, but The Dream was a little bit better, averaging 32.8 ppg on 48% shooting, 11.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.0 bpg and 2.0 spg, keeping Shaq on his heels with every Dream Shake and countermove in his weaponry. Olajuwon was slightly more consistent game-by-game, taking home the Finals MVP award for the second time in his career.
The Experienced Star would prevail over the Youthful Star this time around. While Shaq would get a taste of championship glory later in his career, Hakeem showed, at that time, that he reigned supreme as the best center in the game.