The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous seventeen chapters of this series we recalled the history of the Rochester Royals’ transformation into the Houston Oilers and the Oilers’ subsequent successes and failures in their new home; the short but eventful lives of the IBL and the ABA as they both attempted to supplant the NBA as the dominant force in pro basketball; Houston’s back- to-back 1989 and 1990 NBA league titles; their painful 1991 NBA Finals loss to the New York Knicks; their premature exit from the 1992 NBA postseason; their return to the top of the mountain with their 1993 NBA Finals victory over the Chicago Bulls; their triumphant rematch against the Knicks in the ’94 NBA Finals; the departure of Michael Jordan to Chicago as a free agent; the Oilers’ 1995 NBA Finals victory against the Indiana Pacers; their defeat by the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals; their stunning early exit from the ’97 NBA playoffs; and the opening of their new home, the Enron Center. In this installment, we’ll look back at the late season surge which got the Oilers into the 1998 NBA playoffs.
Nobody had to remind the Oilers roster what was at stake when they took the court at American Airlines Arena to face what just about every sportswriter north of the Rio Grande agreed was a red-hot Miami Marlins team. They knew full well this was a game which not only would greatly affect their chances of getting into the 1998 NBA playoffs, but could make or break their entire ’97- ’98 season. Being knocked out of the NBA postseason in the first round the year before had been bad enough; not even getting into the playoffs at all would be ten times worse. Though the days of Houston’s 1970s playoff drought were for the most part a fading (if somewhat distasteful) memory for fans, they were sufficiently recent to give head coach Rick Pitino and his players very strong motivation to go all out to beat the Marlins.
Therefore, it was almost inevitable that there would be a huge number of fouls called in the Oilers-Marlins game. Miami guard Brent Barry wound up in foul trouble before the end of the first quarter; rookie Houston forward Joe Stephens was ejected early in the second after disputing a technical foul with one of the referees. By the time the final buzzer sounded, a whopping 11 players had fouled out and both teams had been forced to dip deep into their bench reserves. But Houston had the last laugh, coming away with a 96-84 victory over the Marlins.
With the Marlins game in their rearview mirror, the Oilers proceeded to go on a tear throughout the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. The night after their triumph at American Airlines Arena, they squashed the Atlanta Knights at the Georgia Dome; Houston then followed up that performance with a 25-point beatdown of the Charlotte Hornets and a thrilling overtime win against the Washington Wizards at the MCI Center(later Verizon Center). At Madison Square Garden, they rallied from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the New York Knicks on a last- second three-pointer. They wrapped their latest East Coast run with a 119-107 win against their old rivals the Celtics at the soon-to-be-renamed Fleet Center in Boston.
Back home at the Enron Center, the Oilers racked up still more victories. A week before Valentine’s Day, Houston demolished the Minnesota Cyclones in the worst road loss that franchise had suffered in fifteen years; Valentine’s Day itself witnessed the Oilers putting a serious beatdown on a seriously underachieving Seattle Mariners squad. By the end of the month, the Oilers were neck and neck with the Lakers and the Suns in the race for the top slot in the overall NBA Western Conference standings. Pitino’s squad was looking, talking, and playing like the great Houston teams of old.
In early March the Oilers went up to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers. They were just a handful of percentage points out of the top spot in the overall Western Conference standings and one game out of first in the Midwest Division. A win against the Cavs would help Houston secure at least a tie for first place; a loss would set Houston’s cause back a good deal and make it that much harder for the Oilers to clinch home court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
This being the pre-LeBron era in Cleveland, Houston had little trouble dispatching the Cavs. In fact, it was one of the most lopsided Oilers wins of the 1997-98 NBA season; they trashed Cleveland 137-99. There was growing talk of the Oilers making a return trip to the Western Conference finals, possibly even the NBA Finals, if their luck held out down the stretch and they kept their wits about them.
The events of the final months of the ’97-’98 NBA regular season did plenty to encourage Houston fans’ hopes of a return trip for the Oilers to the NBA Finals. In early April the Oilers hosted the Chicago Bulls in a rematch of the 1996 NBA Finals; despite being tagged as fifteen-point underdogs against Chicago, Houston hung on to win that game by nine points. They followed up this victory with a twenty-seven point blowout of the New Orleans Bobcats in a physically taxing showdown played on, appropriately, Income Tax Day. They would officially clinch the number three spot in the ’98 NBA Western Conference playoffs with an overtime win against the Cyclones in Minneapolis on the next- to-last Saturday of the regular season. They would enjoy the home court advantage for the first two rounds of the postseason, and after that....well, Pitino and his squad would simply cross that particular bridge when they came to it.
But they almost didn’t. Leading two games to one in a second-round series against the Portland Trailblazers, they blew a 17-point third quarter lead in Game 4 of that series and ended up losing that game 121-109; before they knew it, the Oilers were trailing the Blazers three games to two and in serious jeopardy of getting bounced from the playoffs at the hands of a franchise which by all rights they should have been wiping the court with. This was a not a prospect that pleased Oiler fans-- or Pitino’s squad, for that matter. After a 30-minute pregame meeting by the Oiler players and coaching staff, Houston went forth and stomped the life out of Portland in Game 6, then punched their ticket to the 1998 Western Conference finals with a double-OT victory over the Blazers in Game 7.
Having survived their second-round clash with Portland and made quick work of the San Antonio Heat in the first round, the Oilers went into the ’98 Western Conference finals on a high note and going full throttle. That was bad news indeed for their opponents in the conference finals, the Minnesota Cyclones, who had hoped the grueling tempo of the Oilers-Blazers series might wear Houston down far enough to make it possible for Minnesota to pull off an upset and qualify for the Cyclones’ first NBA Finals appearance ever.
The Cyclones lost their first two games in the ‘98 Western Conference finals by a combined margin of 75 points; only a Minnesota overtime win at the Target Center in Game 3 prevented the Oilers from sweeping the series. As it was, Houston returned to the Enron Center with a 3 games-to-1 series lead after blowing out the Cyclones by 40 points in Game 4. By the time Houston and Minnesota took the floor for Game 5, the number one question on the minds of fans and sportswriters alike wasn’t who would win the series but rather if the losing team’s head coach would get a pink slip before or after the NBA Finals.
After spotting the Oilers a 25-point lead early in the second quarter of Game 5, the Cyclones came roaring back hard in the third quarter; they started the fourth quarter with the score tied 122-all and at one stretch even managed to gain a ten-point lead on Houston. In the end, however, the Oilers’ vast arsenal of offensive and defensive tools proved to be too much for Minnesota to handle and Houston prevailed 143-131 to clinch their fifth NBA Finals in six years under Rick Pitino. And the ’98 Finals matchup could hardly have been more fitting-- they would once again take on the Chicago Bulls, with not just an NBA championship at stake but also a chance to avenge their ’96 Finals loss at the hands of the Bulls. The catch was that if Houston was going to regain the O’Brien Trophy, they would have to do so on enemy soil: the Bulls had been the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and thus would enjoy home court advantage for the ’98 NBA Finals....
To Be Continued