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Houston Rockets

This Date in NBA History (May 21): Ralph Sampson's game-winner helps Rockets stun Lakers in 1986 Conference Semis & more

On May 21st in 1986, Ralph Sampson got the game-winning shot to fall over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the buzzer.

On the back of this shot, the Houston Rockets, who were already leading the Conference Finals 3-1, clinched Game 5, 114-112, and advanced to the NBA Finals. The Rockets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers - then the reigning NBA Champions - in five games despite losing Game 1.

The Lakers had won a conference-best 62 games in the regular season. Courtesy of this loss, the Lakers failed to make it to the 1986 Finals - the only season they failed to make it to the championship series in a seven-year span from 1982 to 1989.

Despite big numbers throughout the series, from the Lakers' superstars in Magic Johnson (22.2 points, 16.2 assists, 8.0 assists, 2.4 steals) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (27.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.4 blocks), the Rockets were led to this series victory by their Twin Towers in Sampson (20.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.2 blocks) and Hakeem Olajuwon (31.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.0 blocks, 2.2 steals, 2.0 assists).

One, or in one instance, both of the 7-footers had a few stat-stuffing games in this series.

In a 112-102 Game 2 win, both had big games. Sampson finished with 24 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists, and five blocks, while Olajuwon recorded 22 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks, and four steals.

In Game 3, which the Rockets won 117-105, Olajuwon had yet another all-round game with 40 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks.

The 1986 Finals would be the Rockets' second in franchise history and the first since 1981. They would go on to lose to the 1986 Championship series in six games to the Boston Celtics, the same opponent that defeated them five years prior.

Other notable events on May 21st

  • In 1991, Chicago Bulls defeated the Detroit Pistons 105-97 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Chicago Stadium, setting the NBA playoff record for a home win streak at 15. The streak was snapped by the Los Angeles Lakers (93-91) in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals.
  • In 1992, Golden State Warriors' Don Nelson was named IBM NBA Coach of the Year. Thus, becoming the first coach in NBA history to win the award three times after previously winning it in 1983 and 1985 with the Milwaukee Bucks. Pat Riley (1990, 1993, 1997) and Gregg Popovich (2003, 2012, 2014), later, joined him as the coaches with the most Coach of the Year awards - 3.
  • In 1994, the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, 91-81 to the Utah Jazz. However, in the series, Dikembe Mutombo of the Nuggets, finished with an NBA playoff record 38 blocks over the seven games, obliterating Hakeem Olajuwon's previous mark of 30, set in 1993 against Seattle.
  • In 1996, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Orlando Magic 93-88 at home in the Eastern Conference Finals. This game drew a rating of 8.6 and a 13.8 share on TNT. With nearly 8.2 million people tuning in. It is the most-watched NBA game in cable television history.

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