Inside The Forum in Los Angeles, the Houston Rockets took to the court following a timeout late in the fourth quarter. Up 3-1 against the Lakers, Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference Finals was an instant classic. Los Angeles — who entered the series as defending champions — dominated the game early in hopes of keeping their season alive. Once down by double digits, Houston mounted a comeback behind a 17-point third-quarter explosion from Hakeem Olajuwon.
Prior to the Rockets’ timeout, Byron Scott missed a potential game-winning shot for the Lakers, leaving one second left in the final period. With the game tied at 112 apiece, Ralph Sampson closed out the series with a miracle 20-foot jumper as time expired. Game. Series. Match.
The Rockets dethrone the Lakers in a 114-112 victory to advance to the 1986 NBA Finals. Sampson capped off the night with 29 points and five boards, as Olajuwon led the way with 30 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks in the win.
As the Rockets flew out of Los Angeles to prepare for their second Finals appearance in five years, the future was deemed to be bright for a franchise led by Olajuwon and Sampson — nicknamed The Twin Towers.
One season removed from a first-round elimination to the Utah Jazz, the ‘86 season would go down as their most successful year to date. Projected to finish 48-31 during the preseason, Houston set a then-franchise record for the most wins in a season with a 51-31 record and entered the playoffs ranked second in the Western Conference.
In just their second season together as teammates, Olajuwon and Sampson established themselves as one of the top dynamic duos in the leagues. The All-Star tandem averaged a combined 42.4 points, 22.6 rebounds and 5 blocks per game, but the success of the Rockets was a result of a total team effort.
Six of Houston’s 13 activated players during the season averaged double-digits in points, including Lewis Lloyd — who averaged 16.9 points shooting 52.9% from the field. Fan-favorite Robert Reid made his contributions to the league’s fifth-best offense, averaging 12.0 points and 1.1 steals per game.
As one of the deepest teams in the league, Houston embarked on one of their most impressive post-season runs in franchise history. Prior to eliminating the Lakers in the Conference Finals, the Rockets swept through their first-round opponent against the Kings before sending the Nuggets home in six during the Semifinals.
Awaiting the Western Conference champs in the Finals was the Boston Celtics. After a season where they lost 4-2 to the Lakers in the ‘85 NBA Finals, the Celtics finished the year with a league-best 67-15 record and possessed the NBA’s MVP in Larry Bird, and Sixth Man Player of the Year, Bill Walton. Boston obliterated their Eastern Conference opponents (Bulls, Hawks and Bucks) as they entered the championship series with an 11-1 post-season record.
In a rematch of the 1981 Finals, the Rockets failed to revenge their loss to the Celtics, losing the six-game series (4-2) by an average margin of 13.5 points per game. The highlight of the series came during the Rockets’ 111-96 victory in Game 5 to send the Finals back to Boston. In the win, Olajuwon posted a double-double of 32 points and 14 rebounds inside The Summit in Houston.
Although Houston had a dominating route into the Finals with an 11-3 playoff record, the Rockets came into the championship series without one of their core pieces, John Lucas.
As Houston’s starting point guard, Lucas experienced a resurgence to his career during the ‘86 season, averaging 15.5 points, 8.8 assists and 1.2 steals across 65 games. Unfortunately, his season came to a premature end on March 15th due to his on-going battle with substance abuse. Although defending the Celtics would still have been a tall task to accomplish, having Lucas on the floor during the Finals would have improved Houston’s chances to come away victorious.
Sadly, losing in the ‘86 Finals was the peak of The Twin Towers era in Rockets’ history. Due to injuries, Sampson would go on to miss 116 out of a possible 178 games (including playoffs) over the next two seasons. Instead of pulling off one of the biggest upsets in league history, the 1985-86 Houston Rockets would go down as another season of a missed opportunity.