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Rockets seasons of missed opportunity: 1996-1997

The seasons of missed opportunity series continues with a look back at the 1996-97 Houston Rockets.

Houston Rockets Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Houston Rockets took to the floor of the Summit following a timeout by Utah Jazz’s head coach Jerry Sloan. Entering Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were seven minutes away from forcing a decisive Game 7 back in Utah, but a heroic performance from John Stockton down the stretch left the game tied at 100 with 2.3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

With the hopes of keeping their season alive by the end of regulation, the reality of the Rockets winning a champion appeared less realistic as Bryon Russell in-bounded the ball to a wide-open Stockton.

Eleven months prior, Rockets’ management felt a change was in need after a first-round elimination by the Seattle SuperSonics. In a lasting attempt to keep Houston competitive in the twilight of the Olajuwon era, the Rockets acquired future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant, and Chucky Brown.

Despite giving up a portion of their championship core, the trade catapulted Houston into title contention with the fifth-best best odds (+800) to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy at the conclusion of the ‘97 season in June. The Rockets won 21 of their first 23 games to open the season, but finished the year with a 57-25 record due to an injured Barkley — who averaged 19.2 points and 13.5 rebounds across 56 games.

For the final time in his career, Hakeem Olajuwon finished top-10 for league MVP honors averaging a team-high 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals — while shooting 51.8% from the field, and a career-best 78.7% from the free-throw line.

Behind a Big Three (Barkley, Drexler and Olajuwon) averaging a combined 60.5 points per game, the third-seeded Rockets entered the post-season with a favorable first-round match against the Minnesota Timberwolves and eliminated the young core in a three-game sweep. During the semifinals, Houston avenged their loss to the SuperSonics with a 4-3 victory to advance to the Conference Finals.

BKN-JAZZ-ROCKETS-BARKLEY Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images

Coming into the series against the top-seeded Jazz (64-18), homecourt advantage may have been the determining factor. Up until Game 6, each team protected their homecourt, as the Jazz took a 3-2 series lead following a 96-91 victory inside the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

After a seesaw battle through the first three quarters, the Rockets erupted in the final period.

With all the momentum on their side, Clyde Drexler connected on a three-point field goal to give Houston a 12 point lead with seven minutes left in the fourth. Despite being in an excellent position to force a Game 7, the Jazz outscored Houston 25-13 in the final five minutes, as the Rockets found themselves even at 100 with 2.3 seconds remaining in regulation.

Capitalizing on a defensive breakdown by Houston, Stockton drilled a game-winning three-pointer over the top of Barkley as the Jazz stole a 103-100 Game 6 victory to eliminate the Rockets. Stockton finished with a team-high 25 points and scored 11 of the Jazz’s last 14 points en route to their first Finals appearance in history.

Had Houston held on to beat the Jazz in Games 6 and 7, the Rockets had a solid chance to capture their third title in franchise history by dethroning Michael Jordan and the defending champion, the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls had their fair share of struggles against the Rockets throughout the 1990s, and if given the opportunity, Houston could have disrupted the Bulls’ dynasty in ‘97, as Chicago had no answer for Olajuwon. The addition of Barkley would have given the Rockets another inside threat to attack the Bulls, as the former league MVP averaged 27.3 points and 13.0 rebounds four years prior during the Finals in 1993 against Chicago.

Instead of keeping Jordan and the Bulls from winning their fifth title in seven years, the 1996-97 season would go down as another missed opportunity for the Houston Rockets.

To see where the ‘97 Rockets rank among the best teams in history who never won a title, please visit SB Nation’s, “The quest to find the best NBA team to never win a championship,” by Mike Prada.