The year is 1995. Hakeem Olajuwon just followed up one of the greatest individual seasons in ‘94 with an equally as great postseason run the following year. The Rockets plowed through the best the West had to offer. From the high-powered offense of the Utah Jazz led by Stockton and Malone, to Barkley’s ‘93 runner up champions, the Phoenix Suns, league MVP David Robinson’s hungry San Antonio Spurs, and eventually crushed the young tandem of Shaq and Penny in the finals, all while Hakeem dominated the box score series after series. Truly, one of the all-time great runs in NBA history.
But fast-forward 8 years later and another giant out West is giving teams all they can handle. Tim Duncan played like a man possessed in 2003. He went head-to-head with some of the games top talent at the time. Squaring off against a young, athletic frontcourt in Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in Phoenix. Had his hands full with a behemoth in Los Angeles, Shaquille O’Neal, who was accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Kobe Bryant. He dueled with the master of the fadeaway jumper Dirk Nowitzki down in Texas, and finally, annihilated J.Kidd’s Nets in the finals while putting up some of the most remarkable numbers in finals history.
So who had the greater the playoff run?
Was it Hakeem for defeating FIVE 50+ win teams and dragging the 6th seeded Rockets to their second straight championship? Or was it The Big Fundamental who took a young Tony Parker (20 years old) and an on-the-way-out David Robinson (37 years old) to the promise land and did it with no teammate averaging more than 15 points throughout the entire playoffs?
Well, we’re going to have to dig deeper. Starting with each players first round, working our way through the semi and conference finals, and all the way to the championship round.
So let’s begin.
Duncan: 18.7 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 3.5 BPG, 50% FG
Though the Suns might not have had any All-NBA or All-Defensive selections, they did have a Rookie of The Year winner in Amare Stoudemire, and two All-Stars in Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. Behind those three, the Suns finished 44-39 for an 8th place finish in the Western Conference.
The Spurs won the series in 6 games though it probably should’ve been over sooner if Suns didn’t steal the first matchup in San Antonio on a game-winning heave from Marbury.
Duncan had two monstrous performances coming at the most critical time of the series.
Game 5: 23 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocks in an 92-84 win.
Game 6: 15 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 4 blocks in an 87-85 win to closeout the series.
Duncan’s 20 defensive rebounds in game six were the most defensive rebounds in a single playoff game. He also finished the series with 21 total blocks. To put that into perspective, the Suns as a team had 35 blocks. It was just a dominating performance on both ends of the floor.
Hakeem: 35.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.6 BPG, 57% FG
As mentioned earlier, the Rockets finished the season as the 6th seed, so right out the gate the odds were stacked against them.
They found themselves facing a tough and scrappy 60-win Jazz team that was equally good defensively (8th in defensive rating) as they were offensively (4th in offensive rating). John Stockton and Karl Malone – both members of the All-NBA first team that season – had the high pick-and-roll down to a science. Getting past them in the opening round would be a battle.
Hakeem did everything you could ask for on the offensive end and more.
He had two 40-point performances and two more 30-point games. And after going down 2-1 in the first three games, he helped Houston fight off elimination in the two biggest games of the series by averaging 36.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists while converting 12.0 field-goals on 19.0 attempts (63%).
This would be the first of three MVP candidates Hakeem would conquer throughout the playoffs.
Duncan: 28.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.3 BPG, 53% FG.
After getting bounced in the semi-finals by the Lakers the previous season, Duncan and the Spurs would have their revenge the following year.
The Lakers finished the season 50-32 and posted the 4th best offensive rating in the league. Going up against the defending champs and one of, if not the, best duos of all-time would certainly be a handful. And dealing with the massive giant known as Shaq down low would be no less difficult.
Duncan was otherworldly in this one. He played a brilliant offensive game, giving L.A. buckets in a variety of ways, held his own against Shaq on the defensive end, and led the team minutes, points, rebounds, and assists.
As expected, his two best games of the series came in the final two games:
Game 5: 27 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 50% shooting.
Game 6: 37 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 64% shooting.
If you have the chance, you should definitely get on Youtube and watch both of those games. Tim Duncan at his absolute best.
Also worth mentioning, the Spurs won this series with no other player on the team besides Duncan averaging more than 14 points.
Hakeem: 29.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.3 BPG, 50% FG.
Another series and another offensive juggernaut standing in front of Houston.
The Phoenix Suns finished 3rd in offensive rating, second in pace and had two all-stars in Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle. The offensive trio of Majerle, point guard Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley – member of the All-NBA second team – led the franchise to its third straight 55+ win season and the third overall best record in the NBA. This was a team that was determined to get back to the finals and redeem their ‘93 loss to the Bulls.
After going down 3-1 in the series, the Suns smelt blood and this one looked all but over.
Finding themselves facing adversity and on the brink of elimination yet again, Hakeem played out of his mind in the final three games, extending the series to a deciding game 7 on the road.
His averages during that stretch: 30.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.0 steals on 50% shooting.
Olajuwon closed out game 7 with a 29-11-4 (pts,rebs,asts) and the Rockets won 115-114 on a Mario Elie game-winning three-pointer, also known as “The Kiss of Death.”
The Houston Rockets became just the fifth team in NBA history at the time to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win the series.
Duncan: 28.0 PPG, 16.7 RPG, 5.8 APG, 3.0 BPG, 56% FG.
Led by the All-Star tandem of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki – who were also apart of the All-NBA teams (Dirk second, Nash third) – the Dallas Mavericks had an offense that was built to outshoot opposing teams and run up the scoreboard.
As a team, they finished first in the following categories: offensive rating, points, free throw percentage, and turnovers. They also finished third in three-point percentage at 38%.
A good ‘ol fashioned defense vs offense matchup down in Texas. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, Tim Duncan played for San Antonio, not Dallas.
The Big Fundamental had multiple “holy s***, he had how much?” performances in this showdown. From a 40-15-7 with one block and one steal in game one – a game that San Antonio lost – to a 32-15-5 with three blocks in the following matchup, and then followed that up with a ludicrous 34-24-6 with six blocks and two steals in the third game.
Yes, you read that right. Tim Duncan had 34 points, 24 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 blocks and 2 steals in game freaking three. Wilt Chamberlain, who?
But hold on, we’re not done.
In those three games, he shot 37-for-60 from the floor for a field goal percentage of sixty-one percent! Spurs went 2-1 in that stretch and eventually found themselves up 3-1 in the series after Duncan delivered a 21-20-7 with 4 blocks performance in game four.
His dominance “calmed down” in games five (23-15-6) and six (18-11-4). The Spurs ended the series in six games after Dirk Nowitzki suffered a knee injury in game three and was sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs.
Duncan ended the series with 100 total rebounds. The next closest? Michael Finley with 38. If that’s not enough then how about this: Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and starting center Raef LaFrentz combined for 99 total rebounds.
Timothy Theodore Duncan, ladies and gentlemen.
Hakeem: 35.3 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 5.0 APG, 4.2 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 56% FG.
No one expected the Rockets to get this far, but if any team was equipped to tame Hakeem and crush Houston’s spirit, it was the San Antonio Spurs.
Not only did they have the league MVP, David Robinson, but his frontcourt teammate, Dennis Rodman, made All-Defensive first team that year. Oh, David Robinson was also apart of that same defensive team.
On the season, San Antonio finished top 5 in both defensive rating and offensive rating, and had the league’s best overall record at 62-20. It was obvious Hakeem would be in for a long series… or so we thought.
Hakeem downright embarrassed Robinson. He gave it to him inside and outside, showing him every move in his arsenal and putting on an offensive clinic. And it didn’t stop there. Hakeem went down on the other side and held Robinson well below his season averages. This was the MVP of the National Basketball Association and Hakeem made him look completely insignificant.
To say Hakeem had Robinson’s number would be an understatement. Hakeem had Robinson’s entire soul, and if you don’t believe me then maybe you’ll believe his teammate, Dennis Rodman.
“Before those games, he looked so f***ing scared in the locker room, he couldn’t stop shaking.” That was a direct quote from Rodman himself from his book Bad As I Wanna Be.
I mean, just look how demoralized David Robinson is in this photo.
Olajuwon had three 40-point games in the series. He led his team in nearly every category – points, rebounds, blocks, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and minutes. He ended up with a whopping 212 points and had as many blocks (25) as the Spurs did as a team.
He put the finishing touches on the series and David by averaging 40.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 5.0 blocks on 63% in games five and six to put the Spurs away and send the Rockets to their second straight finals appearance.
Robinson still hasn’t fully recovered from that beat-down.
Duncan: 24.2 PPG, 17.0 RPG, 5.3 APG, 5.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 49% FG.
Tim Duncan would save his best for last.
The New Jersey Nets were the best defensive team in the NBA. Ran by their All-Star floor general, Jason Kidd, the Nets had reached the finals just a season ago but were swept by the Lakers. If the Nets thought going up against Duncan and the Spurs would be any less difficult than dealing with Shaq and Kobe, then they were about to be in for a rude awakening.
Duncan did a lot in this series, and I mean A LOT.
After six games, he tallied 145 total points, 102 rebounds and 32 blocks – the most blocks in a 6-game series in playoff history. The Nets as a team only had six more blocks than Duncan did.
Timmy had himself another 30-20 performance in game 1. He dropped 29-17-4-4 in game 5. In game 6 he was screwed out of two blocks, so what should’ve been a quadruple-double ended up being a 21-20-10-8. Still ridiculous, I know, but why couldn’t they just give him the damn quadruple-double!? It’s all on footage, you can’t sit here and tell me those two blocks don’t count. Watch it for yourself if you don’t believe me.
Anyways, the Spurs sent the Nets packing in six games. Duncan led both teams in points, rebounds and blocks, he played an enormous role in effectively shutting down New Jersey – the Nets shot 37% from the floor as a team – and he was awarded with his second finals MVP.
It’s just a shame they robbed him of a quadruple-double.
Hakeem: 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG, 49% FG.
Though Hakeem didn’t lead his team in nearly every statistical category like Duncan did against New Jersey, he did closeout the deadliest offensive team in the league and the only team to beat the Bulls from ‘91 to ‘98 in just four games.
After outplaying the league’s MVP in the previous matchup, Hakeem would now have to do the same against the runner-up, Shaquille O’Neal.
He did. In every game.
Olajuwon became 1 of 6 players in history to score at least 30 points in every game of a playoff series. And scoring wasn’t all he did. Take a look at his stat lines in each game.
Game 1: 31 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 blocks and 2 steals.
Game 2: 34 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 blocks, and 1 steal.
Game 3: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals.
Game 4: 35 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals.
Hakeem also scored 56 field goals, giving him the record for most made field goals in a 4-game series.
Oh, and he also had one of the most forgotten game-winners in NBA history in game 1.
Olajuwon and the Rockets did it. He was an NBA Champion once again and captured his second straight Finals MVP trophy. The Rockets became the lowest seeded team to ever win it all.
As head coach Rudy Tomjanovich shouted after game four, “don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
You’re damn right, Rudy.
In the end, both Hakeem and Duncan ran through an entire conference without a single All-Star teammate, came away with the Larry O’Brien trophy, and gave us two of the greatest individual playoff performances in the process.
Olajuwon – and the Rockets – defeated 7 members from the All-NBA team (4 first team, 2 second team, 1 third team), 4 All-Defensive representatives (2 first, 2 second), the top 3 MVP candidates (Robinson, Malone, Shaq) and ended up with the third most points ever scored (725) in a single playoff run.
We can’t knock Duncan for playing lower seeded teams or only going up against one MVP candidate, because after all, HE was the MVP that year and HIS team lost the least amount of games. But, Duncan – and the Spurs – did win every series comfortably, never requiring a game 7 and without having any other player average more than 15 points throughout the run.
So I ask you, who’s playoff run was better?