Flashback: Rockets Avoid Elimination In Original Flu Game

With Clyde Drexler battling the flu the Rockets win game 5 in Phoenix

Adam Spolane
May 14, 2020 - 9:26 pm
Drexler

Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today

With the entire sports world shutdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak, I have nothing to do, and you have nothing to watch.

In order to cut through the boredom, and with this being the 25th anniversary of the Rockets second NBA championship, I’m going to take a look back at some of the more important games of that playoff run with running diaries of each. 

Installment number three features game five of the Rockets Western Conference Semifinal series against the Phoenix Suns, the third of five elimination games that team faced. 

After losing the first two games of the series in Phoenix, the Rockets return down 3-1 following a crushing loss in game four that saw them blow a big first half lead. It's been 14 years since a team has won a series when trailing 3-1, and the Rockets will have to win two games at America West Arena to get it done. To make things worse, they aren't 100 percent

Broadcasters: Al McCoy, and Keith Erickson. This was the Suns local TV broadcast, and while the game was shown nationally on TBS you still had local broadcasts at this point in the playoffs, which is no longer the case.

Rockets Starters

  • Pete Chilcutt
  • Robert Horry
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Clyde Drexler
  • Kenny Smith

Suns Starters

  • A.C. Green
  • Charles Barkley
  • Joe Kleine
  • Wesley Person
  • Kevin Johnson

First quarter

8:53- The only video I can find of this game starts with the Suns leading 7-5, three minutes in. Pete Chilcutt misses a three, and the Suns take off running.

The Rockets never had an answer for Kevin Johnson. He averaged 26.6 points and 9.7 assists in the 1994 series, and through the first four games of this series he scored 26.8 points per game, including dropping 43 points on the Rockets in Phoenix's game four win.

7:06- Clyde Drexler was an absolute monster in the Rockets first round series win over Utah, averaging over 25 points per game in the series and 36 points in the Rockets two elimination games, but as he heads to the free throw line, the broadcast shows a graphic indicating he's been quiet in this series against Phoenix.

Drexler

A big reason for the lack of production in games one and two is that he was ejected early in the series opener by Jake O'Donnell on this play: 

A questionable foul and a very quick trigger by the Snake, but the story doesn’t end here. There was bad blood between the two to the point where O’Donnell refused to shake Drexler’s hand during the pregame meeting at center court that night. The Rockets sent vido of this exchange to the NBA, and Elyse Lanier, the wife of Mayor Bob Lanier placed a phone call to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

"This guy does not like the Rockets," Lanier said in a Sporting News article published on June 5, 1995, "Clyde is as wholesome as apple pie."

That game would turn out to be the last of O’Donnell’s career. While he was paid for working the first three rounds of the playoffs, the NBA did not assign him to another game, and he retired after the season, and this guy wasn’t an average NBA official. He worked 23 straight NBA Finals, including games three and six of the Rockets series against the Knicks, both wins by the way.

O’Donnell said claimed the NBA didn’t force him out after the Drexler incident and claimed the reason he didn’t shake Drexler’s hand before game one because the Rockets guard had refused his handshakes for years, though O’Donnell didn’t believe there was a feud between the two. He also admitted this to ESPN:

"I wouldn't give Clyde Drexler much leeway because of the way he reacted with me all the time. I thought at times he would give cheap shots to people, and I just would not allow it."

Anyways, Drexler missed both free throws and the Rockets trailed 9-8. This would be another rough Drexler game, but for good reason. More on that later.

5:25- The one thing that really stands out about Phoenix after watching the Utah series is how much they push tempo, and in the first quarter they’ve done it with Johnson, Charles Barkley, and even A.C. Green. On this play, Johnson chases down Kenny Smith to block what should be a breakaway layup, keeps the ball in play, and even with the Rockets defense back, pushes tempo and doesn’t allow them to get set.

Suns lead 12-8

4:01- Speaking of referee feuds, there was a juicy one on the Suns side in this game between Charles Barkley and Mike Mathis.

"Most refs are good guys, except Mike Mathis, he's not a good guy," Barkley said of Mathis on Inside the NBA a few years ago. Barkley also called Mathis the worst referee of all time.

Mathis worked as an NBA official for 25 years, but was one of a number of officials caught up in a tax evasion scandal, where he’d trade in first class airline tickets, which were paid for by the NBA, for coach tickets, pocket the cash and not report it to the IRS. Mathis resigned from the NBA in 1997 and was sentenced to 120 days of house arrest and three years probation.

He was reinstated by the NBA in 1999 and while Barkley was with the Rockets, he was assigned a game in Phoenix on December 1 of that year. In what was a great contest, Kelvin made a put-back to give the Rockets a 115-114 lead with 3.5 seconds left. He was fouled on the play and went to the free throw line, but missed the free throw, and Mathis stepped in and lit the fuse of a tremendous feud. (This is a French broadcast)

Cuttino Mobley missed a desperation three at the buzzer, and the Rockets lost in 128-122 in double overtime. Barkley was fined $20,000 for saying this after the game:

We lost this game because of one reason, Mike Mathis, And that's it. I ain't gonna say nothing else. He's a bad official. He's been bad the whole time we've been in the league. I hate that he came back and he cost us this game tonight.”

I bring this up because Mathis is working this game, and Barkley was just hit with a technical foul, though it was Ed F. Rush who got him, not Mathis. Suns lead 16-13.

0:56.7- The Rockets have gone on a bit of a run as Chucky Brown knocks down a pair of free throws to give the Rockets a 26-22 lead. Paul Westphal has gone to his bench, replacing Barkley with Danny Schayes. Barkley and Johnson played all 48 minutes of the Suns game four win.

0:00- A.C. Green, a 73 percent free throw shooter in the regular season, knocks down a pair, making him 43-of-46 through the Suns first 7+ playoff games to draw Phoenix within two, but the Rockets answer thanks to an offensive rebound and some wonderful ball movement to take a 28-24 lead into the second quarter.

Second quarter

2:42- The only version of this game I can find skips ahead with the Rockets leading 47-42 and according to Suns play-by-play legend Al McCoy, the whistle hasn’t been kind to the home team after Mathis calls Wesley Person for an offensive foul.

1:19- A K.J. layup is followed by an empty Rockets trip. Majerle is fouled as he slashes through the lane for layup, but he misses the free throw, only the Rockets can’t secure the rebound, and Olajuwon fouls Green, who makes two more from the charity stripe. Just like that the Suns take the lead and to make matters worse, Olajuwon has three fouls.

0:00- After Green splits a pair of free throws (the Suns shot 10-of-17 from the line in the half), the Rockets have the ball and can basically hold for the last shot of the half. They don’t. What ensues is a wild 16 seconds as the Suns take a 51-49 lead into the locker room.

The Rockets might’ve caught a break. It looks like Smith stepped out of bounds as he sprinted down the right sideline with the ball as he crossed halfcourt.

Third quarter

12:00- Rudy Tomjanovich switches up his second half starting lineup: Chilcutt is out and Brown is in.

9:30- The Rockets tie the game at 53, but Joe Kleine hits back-to-back mid-range jumpers to put the Suns up by four. All three made buckets for Phoenix in the half have been long twos. Different game.

7:00- A wild sequence that includes Barkley dunking an Elie block attempts leads to a Smith three, leveling the game at 59. There are times when this game is played at a snail’s pace and times when it makes today’s NBA seem slow. McCoy has said “helter skelter” multiple times.

5:15- Olajuwon is fouled as he hits a running, below the rim finger roll to put the Rockets back on top. He makes the free throw and has 19 points on the night.

4:02- As Elie connects on two free throws to tie the game at 68, BFFs Barkley and Mathis have a conversation about a no-call on the other end.

Mathis

Remember, Barkley already has a technical foul in this game.

2:01- The Rockets call timeout with the game tied at 74, and after a commercial break the broadcast returns to show Drexler on the Rockets bench. He has just two points and has missed all six of his field goal attempts. I’ll let McCoy explain why:

As we mentioned sick all day today, getting IVs in bed with the flu and you can see him, he just doesn't feel well. You can see it on his face and you can see it in his stat line two points, 0-for-6 from the floor.”

This was the original flu game.

0:00- The Suns will take a 79-76 lead into the fourth quarter after Johnson scores 16 in the third. This game has featured nine ties and 20 lead changes.

Fourth quarter

11:00- Every time the Suns do something to increase their lead and get the fans in the game the Rockets have an answer. After Brown cuts the lead to one on the opening possession of the quarter, Majerle hits a three, only to see Olajuwon silence the America West Arena crowd.

Olajuwon is up to 25 points.

9:45- Phoenix has scored on consecutive possessions, but each time the Rockets have answer keeping it a two point game.

9:15- After a Johnson missed long jumper, Olajuwon makes a pair of free throws to tie it. Hakeem now has 27 points and 13 rebounds, but the Rockets are fortunate to be in this game. They’ve been outrebounded 52-35 at this point.

8:40- The Rockets dodge another Suns second chance opportunity and Smith finishes a tough layup over Kleine putting the Rockets on top.

7:12- The Rockets are now on an 8-0 run to take a 90-86 lead after a wonder defensive play by Elie leads to a breakaway dunk.

If you notice, we haven’t seen a lot of Barkley in this game. Let’s just say this wasn’t a game to remember for him.

6:29- File this one away. A really good Suns defensive possession leads to a dumb decision by Smith.

There’s no reason to waste a timeout in that spot. The Rockets can’t advance the ball, and as you’d expect with one second left on the shot clock, they get nothing resembling a decent look out of the timeout.

2:31- The Rockets offense is cratering. In the seven possessions since Elie’s dunk they 0-for-4 with six turnovers. Fortunately, after Schayes layup right after Elie’s dunk the Suns have been equally as bad, missing eight straight shots, but the ninth shot comes after an offensive rebound and it’s a Majerle three-pointer that puts the Suns back on top.

Why are the Rockets struggling? Drexler has basically been absent. He’s not on the floor, he hasn’t scored in the second half and he has just two points for the game. Tomjanovich is rolling with Smith, Elie, Horry, Brown and Olajuwon.

2:10- Brown misses a tough shot over Schayes out of the timeout and Elie fouls Barkley going up for the rebound. The Rockets are in the penalty so Barkley heads to the line looking for his first points of the half. He misses both free throws as his wife, Maureen, looks on in agony:

Maureen

The Suns have now missed 11 free throws.

1:10- It’s now nine straight empty possessions for the Rockets, but they continue to dodge bullets after Johnson and Barkley both miss makeable shots on the same possession. I can hear Teddy KGB saying “Hanging around, hanging around” in my head.

0:32.8- The Rockets drought is up to 10 trips, but Johnson’s errant pass to Barkley goes out of bounds and the Rockets get the ball back.

0:17.9- 11 straight empty possessions for the Rockets, after Elie misses a contested shot in the paint. To make matters worse, Brown fouls Barkley going for the rebound, and he’s fouled out, but it does send Barkley to the line, and he’s missed all four of his free throw attempts already.

Make that 5. Here’s the second:

0:08.2- There won’t be a 12th straight empty possession, thanks to Olajuwon who saves the Rockets once again.

But 8.2 seconds is a long, long time.

0:00- The 8.2 seconds probably felt like hours on the Rockets bench, but they get a stop and force overtime, just barely. For some reason the Suns have to go the length of the floor, but thanks to Johnson, they get a great look, only Person can’t knock it down.

Wesley Person isn’t widely remembered, but that wasn’t the guy you wanted getting an open look like that. He shot close to 44 percent from three during his rookie season in 1994-95. When he took KJ’s pass the Rockets season basically came down to a coin toss.

Overtime

5:00- After sitting for close to the entire second half because of the flu, Drexler returns to the game.

4:36- We you have a chance to kill a team you better do it. Olajuwon wins the jump ball to start overtime and ends the period’s first possession like this:

3:37- The lead doesn’t last long as Barkley, who has one point the second entire half, finally comes through with the shot clock winding down.

This was one of the few times the Rockets didn’t send a double team at Barkley.

3:08- But the man who would eventually be known as Big Shot Bob had a big answer.

The Suns are so scared of an Olajuwon post up Horry gets left completely alone.

Horry

What is Barkley doing? Horry was a 38 percent three-point shooter for the season. He shot 48 percent from behind the line against the Suns in the playoffs in 1994 and he was 5-of-11 from three through the first four games of this series.

2:40- K.J. drives to the rim for a layup to make it a one-point game and then Olajuwon gets whistled for an offensive foul, his fifth.

1:59- A great defensive recovery by Drexler forces the Suns into a three seconds violation and on the other end, Horry comes up big again.

He missed the free throw, so it’s still a one possession game.

1:28- The Suns free throw shooting issues come up again. Johnson misses the technical after an illegal defense call, and then Green splits a pair. The Suns were shooting 82 percent from the line in the playoffs before this game, but they shot just 59 percent in game five, misfiring on 14.

1:09- Meanwhile, Drexler gets fouled cutting to the rim and knocks down both free throws for his first points of the second half. Rockets lead is now four.

0:12.5- After both teams trade empty possessions, Majerle misses a three. Elie is fouled after securing the rebound and hits both free throws. Rockets lead 103-97 and this series is going back to Houston.

0:00- On a night where he was basically crippled by the flu, it’s only fitting Drexler would be the one to finish it off.