Relitigating the 1994 NBA Finals: Game 1 — I Have a Dream

A real student of the game, Abe Beame explores another NBA Finals series from over a quarter century ago.
By    January 16, 2020

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Abe Beame’s hang time is like Spud Webb.

I had two formative experiences this season as a basketball fan. The first was a trip to the Garden. I had the pleasure of finally seeing Giannis in the flesh at MSG on December 21st. The Knicks lost by 21 and it wasn’t ever really close, but on the way out of the stadium I was walking on air because RJ Barrett is legit, and Kevin Knox went for 19, including 4-6 from deep and is actually showing signs of developing into the useful, if not great supersized 3&D wing we envisioned when we drafted him. 

A week earlier, as the rest of the world delighted in the unprecedented sophomore ascendence of Luka Doncic, I had my prayers answered as he sprained his ankle, going down for four crucial games as the Mavs embarked on a brutal east coast road trip (They went two and fucking two and snapped a Bucks 19-game winning streak because Porzingis is suddenly 7’3 Steph Curry). The Knicks own the Mavs first round draft pick next year and I figured with a young and recovering core as well as what I thought looked like a ridiculously thin bench, and the new flattened odds, we had a chance at two decent to great lottery picks. Of course, with the shape the bottom of the West is in, it appears the Mavs will finish no worse than 6th and we’re fucked.

After the Bucks game, I realized at this point my season has been reduced to watching for little signs of life from the Knicks young pieces in blowout losses, and rooting against the NBA’s feel good story of the year on a nightly basis. I considered the extreme and absurd poverty of the joy I’m finding in the doldrums of this NBA season. And then I decided it was time to beat back against the current once more. To return to my childhood and the past of another heroic and tragic moment of Knicks near greatness.

For those that didn’t catch my Peabody Awards snubbed series from last season, I essentially watch old Knicks games on Youtube and talk shit, with the time stamps included so you can watch along with me as the Knicks fly high on waxen wings. Last season, I covered their tragic missed opportunity at dethroning Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, we will suffer together through the 1994 NBA Finals, when the Knicks were literally one shot away from a ring that would have forever changed the narrative of Patrick Ewing’s career.

So for Game 1, let’s discuss the idea of narratives and the transformative power of the ring. At the end of last season, Dirk Nowitzki capped a stellar 21 year career, riding off into the sunset with his own tragic history and the validation of one single shining championship. What I found fascinating is how much of the rhetoric was defined by that one season, when a scrappy Mavs team of veterans brought together for One Last Job gutted their way to an improbable championship against a still jelling Heatles squad in their first year.

To me, it’s the dumbest and cheapest form of ring worship. Was Nowitzki’s career really legitimized because Lebron had one or two bad games? Does it make up for all the staggering upsets his teams fell victim to? If Lebron had simply shown up in those games and the better team had won the series, would it have diminished all of Nowitzki’s achievements? It’s mind boggling to reduce Nowitzki’s unimpeachable two decade body of work to a few key moments, but this is the modern economy of value in the NBA. Rings are worth everything, greatness without jewelry is an oxymoron.

In forthcoming installments we’ll get more in depth, discuss my all-time favorite Knicks point guard Derek Harper, the bastard trio of Vernon Maxwell, Mario Ellie and Robert Horry, John Starks’ brutal edging of the entire Knicks fanbase, the immortal Sam Cassel, a little OJ, and the epic marquee matchup between Patrick Ewing at the peak of his powers, and the fucking freak Hakeem Olajuwon. 

But for now, consider that when the pundits wrote their obituaries for Nowitzki, they imagined what might’ve happened without that title in 2011. Perhaps Nowitzki would have been relegated to the dustbin of history, diminished like his great former teammate Steve Nash, or the old legends like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, or (gasp) Patrick Ewing. It’s a sad, unfair and arbitrary measure of a player and a man. 

Because life is like a John Starks 3 point shot, a beautiful and miraculous parabola that can also be temperamental and cruel. What defines a player, and a person is getting to that shot. This series is dedicated to the minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years of greatness that outweigh the arc of that shot and where it lands, because in basketball, and in life, sometimes the shot falls, and sometimes it falls just short.

0:01: Fuck. One second in and I already have to listen to Costas. He’s starting with a reference to the fucking Bulls. Something tells me this won’t end well. 

0:32: Costas calls the Knicks and Rockets “Passion…… Personified” and then the intro reel immediately drops into Ferris Bueller/Kraftwerk 80s montage music so I’ve been won back slightly. 

1:22: 10 years before this series Ewing and Olajuwon met in the NCAA Finals where Georgetown beat Houston and Patrick got his ring. Pretty wild.

1:53: Man, I really love “Roundball Rock”. What a fucking classic. I can’t really articulate to younger viewers how incredible Sunday NBC triple headers were in the Springs of my youth. I doubt the next television deal will bring basketball back to basic cable but I’d kill for NBC to get a few random national showcases and bring back their whole music and graphics package. Also I just found this classic 10-1 skit a few months ago and it’s officially my happy place: 

3:11: Fuck. I hate Costas. Such a smug nerd. Looks like he just ratted on the kid sitting behind him for thinking she was looking at his test.

3:38: Costas is setting this up as Rocky v Creed, the Rockets won 8-10 and are allegedly heavily favored to win, AND just diminished the Knicks victory over the Bulls by needing “Every last second, and some would say, every last call to subdue the Bulls.” “Some would say” is definitely where Trump got “Many people are saying” from and I’m not totally convinced Costas is not a Trump voter. 

3:47: Holy shit. Ewing’s stat line in his Game 7 against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals was 24 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocks. 

4:08: Costas just described the Ewing/Olajuwon faceoff as the most pivotal duel at the 5 since Russell/Chamberlain in 1969.

4:48: Costas refers to Marv Albert as Marvelous, and Marv is doing the game with Matt Goukas???? For the rest of this series I’m also referring to Marv as Marvelous

6:01: Wow, they’re currently discussing how pivotal 3s will be in this game. In this season the Rockets set a record for 3s attempted and made as a team. They made 112 over the course of the season with an average of 7 per game. They attempted 289. For perspective, last season the Rocket’s James Harden attempted 1028 3-pointers and made 378. 

6:18: Marvelous just singled out the matchup between Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell and John Starks as the most interesting in the series. As the kids would say: Following. 

8:50: Bald Charles Smith was such a goon.

9:37: Kenny Smith is such an identity crisis for me. He’s a New York City point guard, but as a Tarheel and a Houston Rocket I’ve always hated him, straight into his post NBA career as an Inside The NBA studio guy. I’m sure you’re reading this right now: Fuck you Kenny Smith. 

11:27: I think Hannah Storm is going for a straight up Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction cut, which is fascinating. I’d love to get a drink with Hannah Storm. The stories must be wild. 

13:58: Wow. Dream called for a travel. Guessing we won’t see much of that.

15:40: Knicks up 5-0, Rockets need to take time, they look SO tight. Long rest after dispatching with Utah in the Western Conference Finals and the Knicks are coming off a second consecutive seven Game series. 

17:05: Fuck, I hate Horry. He always plays for the teams I’ve historically hated the most at the apex of their hateability. It started here. 

21:00: Patrick has a great look out of the post to the perimeter but Harper couldn’t finish. I would’ve loved to see him in a Stan Van offense with him as a point center surrounded by shooters.

23:02: Watching Hakeem’s outside stroke on the replay (II). Looks entirely too comfortable. Starting to get a bad feeling about this.

23:16: One of my favorite parts of the NBC broadcasts are these pre-taped interviews they’d run with coaches and players, they would then run in game in a little window in the top left corner as play went on. They would set the subject against this ominous black background that made whoever was the focus look like Freddie Mercury in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.

23:41: In the interview above, Riley is explaining his thought process regarding how to defend Hakeem going into the series. What a fucking nightmare scenario. Pat is saying he’s seen teams dedicate all their resources, doubling and tripling him all over the court and he still gets off so the Knicks will do their best to stay home on him and play solid team D (With selective blitzes at times to throw him off rhythm). Will be interesting to watch how this strategy develops as the series progresses and Hakeem regularly cooks them.

23:59: On cue Hakeem rises up and snaps the rim from the elbow. Such incredible form for a guy his size. A true unicorn.

24:44: Between baldie Charles Smith, Baldie Oak, Baldie Mase, Derek Harper, Sam Cassell, Carl Herrera, Mario Elie and Vernon Maxwell, the court is just a sea of long limbs and shiny domes. It looks like an Onyx show. 

25:04: Ewing is too strong for Hakeem, on his last bucket in the paint he drops his shoulder, extends his elbow slightly and creates just enough space to get over Hakeem with a fading baby hook. He’s using his arms like Dirk used his leg on that impossible to defend split leg fade. Knicks should’ve just run that play 50 times a game. 

26:04: The Houston crowd just went nuts with Sam Cassell clocking in for the first time in the series. If you were hoping an opening segment in a future installment would be exclusively dedicated to Sam, congrats. Some dreams do come true. 

26:18: If I was behind the wheel of a rental driving down Atlantic Avenue and Otis Thorpe was jay-walking in front of me there would be a full second of indecision before I’d break.

26:33: Rockets are playing off Oak from 15 and he’s torching them.

27:18: Wow. Crazy sequence. Knicks get called for an Illegal defense because Oak gets caught in no man’s land, off his man but not quite commiting to doubling Hakeem. On the inbounds, almost the same circumstance with Oak’s man drawing him to the weak side perimeter, he’s kind of lingering because he knows Patrick is in trouble but he can’t lay all the way off his man. Ewing is fronting Hakeem trying to deny the ball but a perfect entry lob from Horry makes it over the top (A pass he can make because he’s 6’10 being guarded by Mase, generously listed as 6’7), Hakeem grabs it and flushes before Oak can even take a step towards him. I mean, what the fuck are you supposed to do?

27:57: Patrick has to sit with two fouls. HERB WILLIAMS SIGHTING! I know it’s always dicey trying to evaluate players from different eras but whenever you want to criticize someone like Andre Drummond just remember there were actually moments in his career when Hakeem Olajuwon was guarded by Herb Williams. 

33:10: My all time favorite play in all of basketball is Mase pushing a fastbreak. 

34:24: Everything is falling midrange but the Knicks are working so much harder and shooting much lower percentage shots than the Rockets. If it’s not Patrick, and even when he’s in, almost nothing is happening at the cup, which is bizarre because I think you could argue the Knicks at least have comparable size and toughness. Thankfully everything is falling right now and that will never change.

36:15: Cassell just hit a circus shot. Man, he was so much fun.

37:26: Ahmad Rashad is calling Magic Ervin.  

39:00: Who the fuck is Chris Jent?

39:38: I love how fucking tough this Knicks squad was. Patrick just dressed down Mase and if you told me they got in a fist fight or hugged immediately after I’d believe either. 

40:55: I have very little memory of Carl Herrera but he just put an ill fake on Pat to get him in the air, put it on the floor and put up a beautiful teardrop. Surprisingly potent answer when Hakeem or Horry sits.

42:27: If the Titanic was sinking and I was floating on a makeshift raft with ample room at night in the Arctic I would not make space for Mario Elie. Also, a brief aside for what I can only imagine are hundreds if not thousands of expecting couples, sitting together in front of the glow of your monitor thinking about your future as parents: If you want to ensure your child is a punk ass NBA basketball player or a punk ass R&B singer, name him Mario. 

42:33: Harlem Globetrotter play with a baseball outlet from Mase, a pass back from GA and a flush from Charles Smith.

46:15: Cassell out here looking like a poor man’s Steve Nash.

47:11: Celebrity row, at last: Houston Oiler Ray Childress who looks like he may or may not have wrapped a fish in someone’s hat to send a message to their family at some point in his life, Spike Lee of course, NBA rookie Anfernee Harday, Evander Holyfield, Warren Moon and Richard Lewis. The 90s were glorious. 

49:27: This Youtube recording comes courtesy of an NBC affiliate in Colorado. Apparently the day of this game there was a thunder storm warning in effect and they keep running alerts for this fucking thunder storm with public access channel quality graphics that take up a third of the screen and it’s driving me nuts. Like, really? A thunder storm in Colorado is that serious? I’m trying to make out the word Anthony Mason shaved into his head jerkoff 90s Colorado local news producer!

50:26: The Hakeem/Herrera front court is killing us. 

51:22: The following is a list of the all-time worst New Yorkers: Kenny Smith, Harvey Weinstein, Shredder from the Ninja Turtles, David Berkowitz, Donald Trump, Phil Leotardo, Bernie Madoff, The Green Goblin, Lena Dunham, Colin Jost, Daniel Pantaleo, James Dolan, the guy on the train who listens to Big Sean on his phone speaker with no headphones during rush hour and Rudy Giulianni. 

52:24: Really rough stretch. With their deep and skilled front court and feisty guards I think this Houston team was legit better than the Bulls team the Knicks played in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before.

54:38: I can’t believe Carl Herrera was the difference in at least one half of an NBA Finals game. The Rockets are shooting 56% from the floor playing a Jurrassic form of hyper efficient Morreyball, it’s all 3s and layups.

58:30: Knicks are getting sloppy, everyone but Pat and Oak look flustered. Rockets are beating the Knicks playing their own long outlet, hard push in transition game.   

1:01:10: Hakeem went for 19 in the first half. Not great!

1:02:40: Magic is doing halftime analysis with Costas. He’s such a natural. 

1:07:13: This is great. The halftime interview is with Phil Jackson, dressed like a Smooth Jazz musician and discussing his feud with Dave Checketts, the old Knicks President whose job he’d eventually hold. For New Yorkers who lived through his regime, I really believe Jackson’s tenure forever ruined his legacy because now when I see his face even in the mid 90s I just see a sundowning dip shit. 

1:09:10: Ha, Costas introduced a question to Phil concerning Michael Jordan coming out of retirement by saying “Michael Jordan’s average just dipped below .200….”

1:10:29: Vernon Maxwell just did the little speech in the huddle coming out for the second half and NBC had him mic’d up. He sounds like Big Gipp. 

1:12:16: Rudy Tomjanovich looks like a divorce attorney. 

1:15:00: Ewing is just bodying Hakeem everytime he takes it inside. The Knicks are letting Houston dictate our shot selections to the midrange and not pushing the offense where they need it to be.

1:15:48: This is based on absolutely nothing but I bet you Vernon Maxwell voted for Trump. 

1:17:57: Knicks are doing a much better job irritating Hakeem and not letting him get comfortable receiving or holding the rock. 


(To the tune of Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic): “It’s like two for eighteeeeeeeeeeeeeen, in a Finals Game!”

1:20:33: The Rockets refuse to cover Oak outside the paint and he refuses to miss. 6-8 for 12. 

1:21:14: NBC came back from break with an aerial shot of the downtown Houston skyline, which is an oxymoron. 

1:22:53: Agonizing Knicks shit. Lead is down to five and we’re playing with momentum, it’s gross half court grindhouse offense which is just where we want them, Rockets have the possession totally locked down but Starks penetrates and manages to find Patrick with a brilliant pass, then there’s a scrum at the rim and Oak and Pat miss something like three putback tip/bunnies at the rim.

1:23:11: Starks is dumb brave like a suicidal 80s cop in an action frnchise. We don’t need a coach, we need a stern police chief to tear him a new asshole for having no regard for public property and playing by his own rules.

1:24:08: So many good looks here and we just can’t capitalize because we’re ice cold from deep.

1:24:54: If a pandemic strikes North America and the only cure is me not hating Robert Horry we’d all be fucked. 

1:25:18: God, I love this team. Even the gentile, consummate professional Olajuwon looks like he’s about to go full Falling Down because the Knicks are so aggravating. 

1:26:20: Knicks have missed nine straight shots, almost all good looks. Straight pissing this game away. 

1:32:30: I started working on this piece several months ago but had to stop because this game inspired me to start working on a remake of the John Woo classic Faceoff starring Sam Cassell and John Starks. 

1:33:40: The Knicks completely shit the bed this quarter. Absolutely had a window to take control of this game. Fortunately, blowing this won’t come back to haunt them.

1:37:12: Starks’ uncle died a few days before this game and he’s playing completely unhinged. It reminds me of that time Trump said he was going to fix tropical storms by shooting nuclear weapons at them.

1:39:25: Based strictly on build and temperament, Vernon Maxwell might be Dababy’s uncle. 

1:40:12: This Knicks shooting performance is crazy. Even Hubert is ice fucking cold. 

1:47:00: Between his shooting, his defense and being a menace on the boards this was an incredible Oak game.

1:48:00: Riley is getting his lunch eaten. Why are we still settling for midrange bullshit when nothing is going down? We should be attacking the rim every possession. And even Guokas is aware of this, saying it literally as I was completing that sentence. 

1:49:53: The owner of the Rockets in 1994 was some creep named Leslie Alexander. I’m pretty sure I saw him outside of Erasmus the other day on a bench sweating profusely with a jacket draped over his lap. He’s a New Yorker so add him to that list with Kenny Smith. 

1:52:04: Ewing with five fouls, out here looking like Mitch Robinson.

1:53:50: No one gives a good, hard, fuck you foul like Mase.

1:55:24: Otis Thorpe is everywhere.

1:56:11: Mase just hit Hakeem with a Dream Shake, drew contact and put it in. I’m literally laughing out loud.

1:57:31: Lead down to four. Let’s go.

1:58:15: Starks just drew Hakeem’s fifth foul challenging him at the rim. He immediately jumped up and slapped the refs ass like they were in a frat together. You gotta love it. 

1:59:20: The Knicks choked the Rockets out this entire half. They’re finally going to the rack and getting results. If they had done this all half they would’ve taken this. 

2:00:13: They just showed a close up of Hakeem and Mase jockeying for position on the block after Mase got called for the foul. This definitively was not the freedom of movement era.

2:02:00: Did I mention I hate Kenny Smith?

2:03:30: Ewing just rimmed out a wide open 3. Man this is a fucking Knicksy Knicks game.

2:04:37: The Knicks and Rockets are challenging a 39 year old NBA Finals record for least combined points in a quarter held by the Syracuse Nationals who faced off against the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1955.

2:06:35: It’s ridiculous there was ever an arena in Houston Texas called, “The Summit”.

2:07:00: The game in a single image:

2:08:48: All the courtside attendants are wearing merch for a still operating fast casual chain called Taco Cabana, which must be a corporate sponsor. As far as I can tell it’s a Taco Bell Tex Mex knock off that includes the word “Cabana” in its name because all branches of Taco Cabana feature outdoor patio seating and because it sounds vaguely exotic to fucking morons who don’t have a fantastic grasp of the English language. Somehow this perfectly articulates my feelings towards the non-rapping population in the city of Houston and the state of Texas. 

Ewing v. Olajuwon Watch: Patrick: 23/9/2/2/2, Hakeem: 28/10/1/3/2

Just going off raw stats Hakeem clearly won the matchup, but when you consider he had 19 in the first half it complicates things. I think Ewing had more of an impact on the overall game. The Knicks should’ve taken this and the only reason they were in position to do so was because of him. Hakeem had ample frontcourt help from Otis Thorpe and Carl fucking Herrera.

Final Thoughts: The Knicks came into this Finals game on the heels of two brutal seven game series against the Bulls and Pacers. They were on the road facing a well rested Rockets team. After getting torched in the first half they did an admirable job frustrating Hakeem without resorting to doubling him. They also suffered an abysmal shooting night on good to great looks and still had good odds to win the game. Sure, they’re not happy with the result but there is much to feel good about heading into game two. What could possibly go wrong? 

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