HOUSTON -- Why not the Houston Rockets? Why not again?
Why? Because you don't win with a sixth-place team that struggled all season, you don't win without a true power forward, and you don't win with a bunch of CBA and European league castoffs.
But the Houston Rockets again are NBA champions, ending an improbable run to the title with a 113-101 win over the Orlando Magic last night that completed a four-game sweep and a playoff stretch in which they knocked off the top four teams in the NBA.
"Two-rriffic" was the newspaper headline hoisted by Baltimore native Sam Cassell in the moments after the Rockets, in repeating, became the lowest seed to win a championship. Houston also was the first team to win a title without the benefit of home-court advantage in any of the four playoff rounds, and the first team to defeat four 50-win teams on the way to the championship.
"We had a lot of nonbelievers along the way," a jubilant Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said in the midst of the on-court celebration. "I have one thing to say to all those nonbelievers: don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."
Especially when that champion has a player as special as Hakeem Olajuwon, who averaged 32.8 points and 11.5 rebounds in earning his second straight NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award, joining Michael Jordan as the only repeat winners. Olajuwon had a game-high 35 points and 15 rebounds last night and posted the final points of the game with a three-pointer from the right corner in the closing seconds.
"Everybody is rejoicing, the whole city is so happy again like it was last year," Olajuwon said. "Anytime you win a championship, that's the ultimate you can achieve."
There was plenty of support for Olajuwon. Mario Elie, who barely played in last year's Finals against the New York Knicks because of size matchups, had his best game of the series -- 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting. Robert Horry had 21 points and 13 rebounds, and Cassell had 13 points and four assists off the bench.
For the four, winning a second straight championship was thrilling. But there wasn't a happier person on the floor than Clyde Drexler, who, after two failed tries at a title in Portland, finally won one.
"This was great. How sweet it is!" said Drexler, who had 15 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
Despite recording the first sweep in the NBA Finals since 1989, when the Detroit Pistons took out the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston never had an easy game against the Magic. As the Rockets celebrated, Orlando coach Brian Hill had some final words for his team while gathering them on the court for a huddle.
"We just wanted to remember [Houston's] feeling," Magic center Shaquille O'Neal said of the huddle. "We want to work hard and come back next year."
O'Neal didn't go quietly, ending his season with a 25-point, 12-rebound, four-block effort. Anfernee Hardaway also scored 25 points (with five assists) and Brian Shaw came off the bench to score 17 points in 23 minutes.
But two players who helped the Magic get to this point -- Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson -- again had quiet games. Scott scored 14 points and Anderson had four in 31 minutes.
"We had a great season, but things did not go our way in the Finals," Anderson said. "Hopefully, that will be us out there [celebrating] next year."
With fans sporting "How sweep it is" T-shirts, the Rockets fed off the crowd early, leading by as many as 11 points in the first quarter. But Orlando did not fold, and by the start of the fourth quarter Houston's lead was just 77-76.
Then an Elie-led surge put the game away. He made three-pointers at the start and finish of an 11-2 run by the Rockets, giving Houston an 88-80 lead with 7:52 left.
Orlando had one last run, closing to 90-87 after a layup by Anthony Bowie with 6:01 left. But Horry hit a three-pointer to start a 9-0 run by the Rockets. Two free throws by Olajuwon with 4:07 left gave the Rockets a 99-87 lead. His three-pointer capped the victory.
The Rockets became the first team since the Washington Bullets in 1978 to win a title without having a division title and without finishing with one of the top three records.
And for Drexler, a midseason trade from the Trail Blazers to his hometown turned out to be the best thing to happen to his career. He was part of perhaps the best college team to never win a national championship at the University of Houston, where he played alongside Olajuwon. Twice at Portland he had opportunities to win titles, only to be denied by Detroit and Chicago.
Now, he finally gets to wear a ring.
"Persistence pays off," Drexler said. "Finally I'm on a team that is good enough to win it and I couldn't be happier.. . . . To do what we have done is just phenomenal."
ORLANDO vs. HOUSTON (Rockets win series, 4-0) Game 1: Rockets 120-118, OT
Game 2: Rockets, 117-106
Game 3: Rockets, 106-103
Last night: Rockets, 113-101
FINALS SWEEPS Year .. Winner .. .. .. Loser
.. Boston .. .. .. Minneapolis
1971 .. Milwaukee .. .. Baltimore
1975 .. Golden State .. Washington
1983 .. Philadelphia .. L.A. Lakers
1989 .. Detroit . .. .. L.A. Lakers
.. Houston . .. .. Orlando
DOING IT THE HARD WAY
With last night's 113-101 victory over the Orlando Magic, the Houston Rockets became the lowest-seeded team to win a championship. The Rockets finished the regular season 47-35 and were seeded sixth in the West. The Rockets' rough road to their second consecutive championship:
Round .. .. .. Opponent .. .. Record .. .. Seed .. .. .. Series result
First .. .. .. Utah .. ... .. 60-22 ... .. 3rd West . .. Rockets, 3-2
Second . .. .. Phoenix ... .. 59-23 ... .. 2nd West . .. Rockets, 4-3
Conf. finals . San Antonio .. 62-20 ... .. 1st West . .. Rockets, 4-2
NBA finals ... Orlando ... .. 57-25 ... .. 1st East . .. Rockets, 4-0