The situation was as improbable as the final shot itself—a twisting, half-blind, turnaround prayer launched by a guy who's supposed to clutch in the clutch. It bounced once on the front of the rim, again on the back and then, just as the final buzzer sounded like a doleful foghorn for the home fans in the Forum, it dropped through the basket. The Houston Rockets had beaten the Los Angeles Lakers 114-112 last Wednesday night, their fourth straight victory in this NBA Western Conference final and the one that sent the revved-up Rockets into the championship series against Boston.
But what were the defending NBA champs doing tied to the railroad tracks with a freight train bearing down on them, anyway? Trailing 3-1 in games, blowing leads of as much as 14 points on their home court, the Lakers failed to pull away even though their personal Marquis de Sade, Akeem Olajuwon, was in the locker room, having been ejected with 5:14 left in the game. And why, with one second left and the score 112-112, were they not contesting the all-important in-bounds pass, the pass that would get through so easily to 7'4" Ralph Sampson within 12 feet of the basket?
There's one all-purpose answer, of course—this is the NBA, and no team in 17 years has won two titles in a row. Even great champions, as the Lakers were considered to be just five months ago, turn all gooey when they try to repeat. "We will win," Laker coach Pat Riley had said before Game 5. "Why? Because we're the Lakers. Because we are the defending champs." No, Pat, that's why you couldn't win.
Indeed, soft was how the Lakers had played the Rockets throughout this series, and soft was how they played their final second of 1985-86. Riley had elected, as he said later, "to put as many people in the scoring area as possible," and not to put pressure on the inbounds pass. Well, that is one strategy, but he did have Petur Gudmundsson on his bench, a 7-footer who could have leaped in the air and waved his arms like a maniac. Perhaps that was their problem in a nutshell, though—L.A. didn't do enough leaping in the air and acting like maniacs.
June 1, 1986
"There are two ways to play it," said Houston coach Bill Fitch. "You can 'tiger' the ball, or you can try to sandwich the guy you think they're going to pass to. They chose the latter strategy." Fitch didn't say whether he thought that was right or wrong, perhaps because he had almost been beaten in the same situation in Game 6 of the Rockets' semifinal series in Denver. With one second left in overtime and the score 116-116, the Nuggets were able to inbound easily to 7-foot Blair Rasmussen, who got off a short hook shot at the buzzer. It missed, and the Rockets eventually won in double overtime. Now Fitch wanted that same kind of shot—something as close to the basket as possible.
Fitch wisely selected Rodney McCray, who had made sound decisions throughout the series, to make the pass. Perhaps, for a split second, McCray might have wished that Olajuwon were in the game. But the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak had taken care of that five minutes earlier. He had been bumping and shoving Olajuwon until the Rocket center roughly elbowed him away. After Kupchak shoved him back. Olajuwon started swinging. Referee Jess Kersey then showed the best defense of the series when he charged Olajuwon and drove him back toward the Laker bench where that noted peacemaker Maurice Lucas was only too glad to apply a headlock. For a moment, it looked as though a hockey game had broken out. Olajuwon and Kupchak were both ejected, Kupchak with six points and two rebounds, Olajuwon with 30 and seven. L.A. got Manhattan, Houston got beads.
In a way, though, Olajuwon's absence made it easier for McCray, who now had only one tower to search for, not two. Throughout the season, in fact, Sampson had been at his best with Olajuwon off the court. And not even his critics could have doubted his competitive instincts in this game. Early in the fourth period he went berserk after Lucas elbowed him in the face as he went up for a shot. Judging from the mayhem in Sampson's eyes, only the intervention of the usually ready-to-rumble Olajuwon saved him from ejection.
And though it was Robert Reid's three-point jumper with 15 seconds left that tied the game at 112-112, it was Sampson who kept Houston in the game after Olajuwon's ejection, scoring eight of Houston's last 13 points down the stretch. Soon, he would make it 10.
As the teams lined up for the play, Sampson first stationed himself out high, near McCray. Then, as Kersey handed the ball to McCray, Sampson moved low, taking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with him. James Worthy, McCray's defender, the free man, took a position near the foul line. McCray waited for Sampson, Abdul-Jabbar behind him, to make his move, then delivered a perfect pass. Worthy, one supposes, was the other part of the "sandwich" that Fitch spoke of, but he didn't apply so much as an hors d'oeuvre's worth of pressure. Sampson caught the pass, made a half-turn and released it, awkwardly, but, as it turned out, accurately.
"He wasn't graded on form," Fitch said. "It wasn't gymnastics." Sampson called it a "funky shot," and, indeed, it took a couple of funky bounces before it fell in, completing what he said later was "the best, most gratifying experience I've ever had in my basketball career."
Interestingly, even as the ball was bouncing around, Mitchell Wiggins was going past Michael Cooper to get in position for a possible offensive rebound. That spoke volumes about the series—the Rockets always seemed to be moving and the Lakers always seemed to be standing still.
"Sometimes it takes a miracle to beat the world champions," said Riley. Not really—Sampson's shot notwithstanding, miracles had nothing to do with it. The Rockets headed into the Boston series secure in the knowledge that they had gone over, around and through the Lakers. And everybody else knew it, too.