After Michael Jordan decided to sit out the 1993-94 season, Hakeem Olajuwon instantly became the best player in the NBA. He helped his Rockets jump out to a record setting 15-game win streak to begin the year. Houston slowed down during the middle stages of the season but finished things off with the second-best record in the league, a few victories shy of the Seattle Supersonics.
Hakeem the Dream took away nearly all the association’s regular season hardware in 1993-94, including the MVP Award, Defensive Player of the Year Award, All-NBA First Team, All-Defense First Team, and of course, he was an All-Star Game starter.
Here’s the thing, though: Hakeem put up one of the best all-around regular season performances in the NBA’s history, but that was just the beginning. He somehow grew stronger and faster, transforming into a mythological beast during the 1994 playoffs. Olajuwon did everything for his squad as he navigated the hurricane winds of a mid-90s NBA postseason run.
And that’s where our story begins.
Below, we’ll break down Hakeem’s individual 1994 postseason performance along with his teammate’s statistics, and we’ll detail each Rockets playoff series, showing just how special The Dream was throughout the Rockets’ first of two titles runs.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1994 Postseason Performance
We’ll get into Hakeem’s spectacular offensive repertoire in a moment, but when you talk about The Dream, you must start with his defense.
Sorry Bill Russell, but Olajuwon is the best defensive center ever to lace them up in the NBA, and it isn’t especially close. Hakeem is the only player to land inside the top-10 in all-time blocks (1st) and steals (10th). He was a true inside-out terror, hounding opposing big men on the block, laying waste to multiple shot attempts at the rim, and switching out onto smaller guards on the perimeter.
Hakeem’s defensive prowess was in full force throughout the 1994 postseason. He grounded some of the best frontcourt players of the 90s into dust.
Here’s a breakdown:
During the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, Hakeem helped hold Clifford Robinson to 41.2% shooting from the field.
In the second round versus the Phoenix Suns, The Dream helped hold superstar Charles Barkley to a 45.7% mark from the field.
During the Western Conference Finals, he helped stymie another superstar, Karl Malone, into hitting only 43.3% of his attempts.
In the penultimate round against the New York Knicks, Hakeem ruined superstar Patrick Ewing’s life, forcing him into a measly 36.3% shooting clip from the field.
Hakeem didn’t just contain his own man. He played his typical float-around-the-entire-court style defense, closing out on opposing outside shooters from beyond the arc, altering dozens of shots at the rim, and canceling out his teammate’s perimeter mistakes.
In the end, Hakeem finished the 1994 playoffs with 4.0 blocks per game, 1.7 steals per game, a ridiculous 97 defensive rating, and a 3.3 defensive box plus/minus.
Hakeem also terrorized opposing centers on the fun side of the ball. The Dream blended a combination of interior strength with quick feet and a smooth perimeter jumper in a way the league had never seen before. He drove his defenders crazy with his multi-level scoring ability.
Unfortunately, the league didn’t begin to track players' ranged shooting percentages until the 1996-97 season, so I can’t show you precisely how deadly Hakeem was out to the three-point line during the 1994 playoffs. I can, however, give you an example from the 1997 playoffs of just what type of shooter Hakeem was in his prime.
Hakeem’s 1996-97 playoff shooting numbers across 15 games:
0 to 3 feet: 75.8%
3 to 10 feet: 56.8%
10 to 16 feet: 55.4%
16 feet to the arc: 35.0%
Watch replays of Hakeem’s 1994 playoff run, and the first thing that sticks out is how quick he looks. Olajuwon seems like he’s playing with the fast-forward button on. He was more explosive than everyone around him, playing up a gear, making some of the best big men in the world look like JV players going up against the varsity center.
The Dream used his patented blend of spin moves, up-and-under jukes, crossover dribbles, and mid-range jumpers to average 28.9 PPG on 51.9 shooting from the field during the Rockets 1994 championship run.
Who Did Hakeem Olajuwon Have Standing Beside Him?
The Rockets 1994 roster featured one All-Star, Hakeem. The other athletes on Houston’s championship squad were all solid role players, but none were inside the NBA’s top-50.
Vernon Maxwell was second on the Rockets in scoring during the 1994 playoffs at 13.9 points per game. He was the closest thing to a playmaker in Houston’s starting lineup with 4.2 assists per game throughout the postseason and a decent off-the-dribble jumper. Still, he finished the postseason shooting 37.6% from the field off mostly open shots.
Otis Thorpe suited up next to Hakeem in the Rockets frontcourt. He was your typical 90s enforcer, in the mold of Charles Oakley or Dennis Rodman. He was in the lineup to gobble up defensive rebounds, hit the offensive boards, and play bone-crunching D. Thorpe was a high-level role player averaging 11.3 PPG and 9.9 RPG in the playoffs, but he offered little rim protection and was known to get beat on the less fun end by skilled frontcourt players.
Robert Horry played the small forward position for the Rockets as an ahead-of-his-time frontcourt player who spread the floor for Hakeem with his outside stroke. Horry was one of the best 3-and-D players of his era, averaging 38.2% from deep off 3.9 attempts per game which helped him drop 11.7 points per game in the 1994 playoffs. He also played intelligent 110% man-on-man defense and pulled down 6.1 rebounds per contest. Still, he wasn’t capable of taking pressure off Olajuwon as a playmaker. Instead, his offensive game was predicated on the space Hakeem created for him to get his shot off.
Kenny Smith rounded out the group of role players surrounding Hakeem in the starting lineup. Smith was the point guard, a player noted for getting to the rack and finishing with flare. Smith was 28-years-old during the Rockets 1994 playoff run, and he’d slowed down a bit. Instead of consistently pressuring the rim, he launched from deep, catching fire. He ended the playoffs shooting 44.7% from beyond the arc as he scored 10.8 points nightly and dished out 4.1 assists per contest. Smith played a crucial role alongside Hakeem in many of the Rockets’ close victories.
Sam Cassell, 24, was the Rockets first player off the bench, their sixth man. He averaged 21.7 minutes per contest, 9.4 points per game, and 4.1 assists nightly during the 1994 postseason. Cassell was a heat-check player, the kind of athlete who could torch you if he got on a roll. Unfortunately, throughout the Rockets’ first title run, he never went streaking, hitting only 39.4% overall from the field.
Mario Elie was another sub for the Rockets, averaging 5.8 PPG during the postseason and playing his usual elite defense. He shot only 31.3% from deep, and Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, was looking for outside shooting to open the middle for Hakeem, so Elie played only 16.6 MPG during the 1994 playoffs.
Carl Herrera was a little-known power forward from Trinidad and Tobago who stuck in the league nine seasons because of his ability to defend other big men and pull down the occasional rebound. Herrera finished the 1994 playoffs with modest numbers of 4.7 PPG and 2.8 RPG, but his impact went beyond his box score. He was instrumental in helping contain Karl Malone and Charles Barkley during brief playing spurts, giving Kareem and Thorpe a little rest.
Hakeem led the Rockets through the playoffs without another star. Hell, he didn’t even have a decent playmaker to lean on. Olajuwon finished the 1994 postseason leading Houston in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, blocks per game, steals per game, free throw attempts, and minutes played. Without The Dream, the Rockets wouldn’t have made the 1994 playoffs; with him, they won a title.
The Rockets In The Playoffs
In the first round of the 1994 playoffs, the Rockets took on the Portland Trail Blazers, winning 3 games to one. The Trail Blazers featured two excellent offensive weapons in Rod Strickland and Clyde Drexler, but neither player had close to the two-way impact of Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream concluded the series with 34.8 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.3 SPG, and 3.8 BPG as Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, and Otis Thorpe provided excellent supplementary scoring and defense.
During the second round of the playoffs, the Rockets squared off against Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Houston dropped the first two games at home as Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Majerle gave the Rockets fits with their inside-out attack. Vernon Maxwell was the Rockets offensive hero throughout game three, pouring in 34 points as Hakeem turned up the pressure on defense. Together, Maxwell and Olajuwon changed the complexion of the series, downing the Suns 118 to 102 before they could go down 0-3. Hakeem went on to stifle Charles Barkley and the Suns’ attack at the rim. Phoenix wouldn’t score over 96 points through the last three contests of the series, and The Dream ended things with a masterful performance in game seven, dropping a clean 37 points to go along with 17 rebounds and 3 blocks.
The Rockets halted off the Jazz during the Western Conference Finals in five games. Hakeem dominated the series with his defense, averaging 4.6 blocks and 2.6 steals. He completed his five-game masterpiece against Utah with a 97 defensive rating, an impressive mark that looks even better when compared to Karl Malone’s 109 DEFRTG. The Dream wasn’t bad on offense either, averaging 27.8 points per game, providing open shots from beyond the arc for Kenny Smith (52.6 3P%) and Vernon Maxwell (41.0 3P%)
The Rockets faced the Knicks in the NBA Finals. New York was the best team in the Eastern Conference all year long and had one of the best defenses the NBA has ever seen, featuring three pain-inducing big men, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason. Houston and New York went back and forth through the first four games, entering game five at an even 2-2. The Knicks took it to the Rockets in game five, winning 91-84, bringing Houston’s season to its knees. During game six, New York came inches away from pinning the Rockets, but with Houston up two points with only seconds left on the clock, Olajuwon came out of nowhere for one of the league’s most historic blocks, swatting John Stark’s game-winning attempt from deep, sealing the W for the Rockets. Houston won a not-as-close-as-the-final-score game seven 90 to 84. Hakeem Olajuwon led both squads in scoring in every contest of the 1994 finals as he held Patrick Ewing to less than 37% from the field in the finals. The Dream ended the season with a total 1994 trophy sweep, winning the Finals MVP Award.
Hakeem Olajuwon Had One Of The Best Playoff Runs Ever
Hakeem Olajuwon finished the 1994 playoffs by averaging 28.9 points per game. Vernon Maxwell was second on the Rockets with 13.8 PPG through 23 postseason contests. The Dream scored 15.1 more points than Maxwell, which is the largest gap between a championship squad’s top two scorers throughout their playoff run in the NBAs modern era.
Shaq had Kobe. Kareem had Magic. McHale had Bird.
Every other championship big man in the NBA’s long history had a costar, typically a playmaking guard to soak up defensive attention with their gravity.
Even the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, couldn’t win without Scottie Pippen. And look how LeBron James is doing this season without Anthony Davis by his side.
Check out Hakeem’s 1994 postseason teammates:
Vernon Maxwell: 13.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.1 BPG
Otis Thorpe: 11.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Robert Horry: 11.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Kenny Smith: 10.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Sam Cassell: 9.4 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Mario Elie: 5.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.1 BPG
Carl Herrera: 4.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Earl Cureton: 1.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Scott Brooks: 2.2 PPG, 0.4 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG
Matt Bullard: 1.6 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 0.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Chris Jent: 1.2 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Hakeem Olajuwon won the 1994 championship with a cast of role players as he dominated series after series with his two-way magic. The Dream might not be atop the NBA pyramid, but his first title with the Rockets is legendary, and he shouldn’t be left on the periphery of the NBA GOAT conversation.