Thursday, March 22, 2012

Analysis by Request pt. 1: The 1995 NBA Finals - Magic vs. Rockets

Background Info

This post is in response to a solicitation for requests I made on reddit. I considered doing this post in the past but I knew it would take a lot of time and I would have to find the right footage to make decent clips. Thankfully, I was able to find decent quality video of Game 4 from the series and I think this game is representative of the entirety of the series. With that said, for this post we're going to take a look at one of my all-time favorite series - the Orlando Magic led by Shaquille O'Neal against the Houston Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1995 NBA Finals.

This series is one of my favorites for a couple of different reasons. First, the '95 Rockets are the lowest seeded team (6th in the Western Conference) to ever win a championship. Second, the path to the championship was probably one of the most difficult. The Rockets are one of three teams to face 50+ win teams in every round of the playoffs (the '01 and '10 Lakers being the other two teams). Even more impressive, the teams they faced - the Magic, Spurs, Suns, and Jazz - had the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best record in the league respectively. Lastly, the two teams played a very similar offensive game so the series was mostly decided by execution.

We'll start by taking a look at the offense common to both teams then we'll take a look at their differences.


If you've followed my past posts you're probably very familiar with this set. For those who aren't, the set looks like this:

The Center is posted at the low block while the other four teammates are stationed around the perimeter. Both teams use the 4-out-1-in as their main offensive set. If we think about our rosters it should be pretty clear why that is. Both teams have adept 3pt shooters and both teams have skilled post-scoring Centers but there's also a historically relevant reason for this set.

Historical Context


Between 1947 and 2001 there were several restrictions on zone defense. The argument was that the NBA, unlike college, shouldn't try to limit the athletic gifts of its players because it would create a more entertaining product if players were forced to play man-to-man defense. As time went on the league modified how much it would allow zone defense and by the time of this series zone defense was per se allowed but some restrictions still existed that have since disappeared. 

The limitations were as follows:

a. Weak side defenders may come in the pro lane (16’), but not in the college lane (12’) for more than three seconds.
b. Defender on post player is allowed in defensive three-second area (A post player is any player adjacent to paint area).
c. Player without ball may not be double-teamed from weak side.
d. Offensive player above foul line and inside circle must be played by defender inside dotted line.
e. If offensive player is above the top of the circle, defender must come to a position above foul line.
f. Defender on cutter must follow the cutter, switch, or double-team the ball.

Additionally, this series was also before the "Mark Jackson Rule" which states:

A five-second count will begin if an offensive player with the ball and not facing-up starts dribbling below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded or starts dribbling outside and then penetrates below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded. (The five-second count commences when the offensive player penetrates the free throw line extended). After five seconds, a violation will have occurred and the offensive team will lose possession.
As a practical matter these rules had several notable advantages for the offense. First, it was more difficult to double team a post player because perimeter defenders could not go below the foul line if their man was above the top of the circle. Second, post players did not have to worry about weak side defenders assisting with ball denial from double teams. Lastly, since the Mark Jackson Rule was not yet in place, post players had more time to make their moves and make decisions. The last rule mostly affected guards that posted up (as we'll see in this game) but if any reader should attempt to compare what we see here to teams that run this system now this information might be useful.

Let's take a look at two clips that show the illegal defense in effect.

In our clip we see Sam Cassell help with ball denial on the post entry pass. Brian Shaw then quickly moves up above the circle when Cassell is caught still below the free throw line so he's called for the illegal defense.

This time Kenny Smith is caught hedging toward the post while his man is well above the circle and is called for illegal defense.

Now let's return to our set and see why all this information is so significant.
Notice in this set that as long as the PG and SG remain above the circle, they cannot come double team the Center. Also remember that the SF and PF, although their offensive players are below the circle, the rules do not allow them to come from the weak side to aid in ball denial to the post. These limitations along with the Mark Jackson rule give the Center an isolation at the low block as long as his teammates are discipline with where they move on the court.

For that reason, this series was a battle of Olajuwon and Shaq's post game and their ability to recognize when to pass rather than force a shot. It's also for that reason that I've decided to break this analysis down mostly by the play of Olajuwon and Shaq. They both ran the bulk of their offense and the decisions they made played a large role in the success or failure of their teams - more so than might have been immediately apparent without the historical context.

Let's start with Shaq's Magic.

Shaquille O'Neal

As mentioned above, this system only works if Shaq is an effective post player. Shaq's style of play was markedly different from Hakeem. Shaq was so physically imposing that his post scoring mostly revolved around gaining deep post position by brute strength and finishing hard or by using his wide body and length to put up a difficult to defend hook shot.

Here we see Shaq's hook shot at work.

Additional clips:
Hook Shot 1
Hook Shot 2
Hook Shot 3
Hook Shot 4
Hook Shot 5
Hook Shot 6
Hook Shot 7

Shaq was able to get great post positioning through screens in the lane and by using his superior strength.

Here we'll see Dennis Scott set a screen in the lane for Shaq that places him right under the basket.

His signature through his career though was his ability to simply move players out of the way on the cross cut. In this clip we see Shaq move Hakeem out of the way on his cross cut and stop under the basket for great positioning.

In this next clip Charles Jones is forced to foul Shaq due to the same cross cut.

This next clip demonstrates the ferocity that Shaq possessed as a post player.

At this point in Shaq's career he was very mobile but his post moves were still a work in progress.

Other clips:

Clip 1
Clip 2
Clip 3
Clip 4
Clip 5

Hakeem Olajuwon

By comparison, Olajuwon's post game was based on a masterful grasp of the fundamental shots but also an incorporation of a seemingly endless array of counter moves. Where Hakeem lacked in strength, he made up for in footwork and clever adaptation to his defender.

Here Hakeem executes a fadeaway jump shot as a basic move that sets his defenders up later in the game when he starts to add counter moves.

Hakeem was also able to put up a very good hook shot though he wasn't nearly as wide as Shaq and thus he couldn't rely as heavily on it.

The basic post moves executed by Hakeem lulled his defenders into thinking they knew what to expect next. Here Hakeem puts up a baseline spin move shot.

In this next clip we see a play almost identical to the Dennis Scott lane screen above. Notice that Hakeem can't overpower Shaq in the same way and thus is slightly outside the lane by comparison. Also notice that Hakeem uses his body to keep Shaq away from his shot and finesses a runner.

When Hakeem is unaided by a screen he uses his footwork and body control to gain some ground in the post. Here Olajuwon's post entry is initiated by first facing up to Shaq then rolling his body across to get a little deeper position. When the double comes, he splits the double team by planting hard and pivoting between them.

When Hakeem makes a cross cut he doesn't have the strength to muscle into position like Shaq but he's able to compensate by having an excellent face up game.

If he doesn't feel like he has good positioning or if he just wants to test his defender's mobility, he can face up and go to work.

Hakeem was also able to reliably score as a spot up shooter from within about 15ft.

But even when faced with a simple spot up shot opportunity defenders still have to be careful of Hakeem's amazing footwork.


When facing Shaq you knew what you were getting as a defender. You expected him to try to assert his strength on you and your difficulty as a defender was to overcome that strength. With Hakeem, you could never over react to any of his movements or he would make you pay. Both styles were very effective but vastly different ways; all the more reason to love this series.

Now that we've seen how each player created scoring opportunities for themselves, let's see how their post play created shots for everyone else.

The Perimeter

I mentioned earlier that the rules at the time allowed much easier post isolation plays but often times teams would opt out of the benefit of the illegal defense rule in an attempt to take advantage of the defense's double team. The animation below illustrates how dropping the wing player to below the top of the circle would permit the wing defender to double and could open up shots for any of the perimeter players.

If any defender is slow on the rotation a shot opens up and ultimately the corner shot should eventually be available.

Here the post entry pass attracted Elie and Smith to help in the post. Shaq reacts by passing to Hardaway who then skip passes to Scott who is open because Horry was late on the rotation. 

Did you notice anything strange about this play? Take a look again and see if you can spot it.

You may have noticed that Elie should have been called for the illegal defense since Scott was above the circle and Elie moved below the free throw line. Part of why the rule was eliminated was because of the difficulty of enforcement. Referees were very inconsistent with the call and, like many rules still in place today, often they would miss the call. Some referees would rule based on the spirit of the rule - to prevent zone defense - which would further complicate enforcement since technically zone defense was legal, it was the zone defense as modified by the league that was illegal. As a defender, sometimes it was worth risking the call, especially with the inconsistent enforcement, if it meant taking the ball out of a strong post player's hands a few possessions.

Here Grant drops below the circle and Horry doubles on Shaq. Grant then rotates to give Shaq a better passing angle and is open for the shot.

Even if a shot isn't immediately available the outlet pass from the post could allow drives from pump fakes that could open up the offense even further.

So far we've seen how the Magic were able to create offense out of the post but let's see how the Rockets differ slightly.

In this clip we see something very similar to how the Magic find the open perimeter player. In this instance, Drexler pump fakes and drives before finding Elie but that wasn't uncommon for the Magic either.

Once again, we see a pass similar to what the Magic would run with Olajuwon passing to Cassell.

Where I think the two players differ is when Olajuwon passes out of a move. Olajuwon was very good at passing out of one of his post moves and because he commonly would use counter moves it was hard for the defense to tell if he was going to put up a shot or pass.

In this clip Olajuwon fakes the baseline spin move and then fakes a move to the lane and passes out to the wing. Notice how Hardaway leaves his man and plays for the baseline move which Olajuwon then splits by moving to the lane. This leaves Hardaway not only out of position to defend Smith but also Olajuwon has taken Hardaway out of defending a hook or fadeaway.

Here Olajuwon performs a series of fakes and still finds Horry open on the perimeter. 

Grant didn't leave Horry on the initial move but he did once Olajuwon looked to move toward the lane. Olajuwon's style of play not only caused his defender to react but also defenders along the perimeter. With Shaq, he might draw double teams as he proceeded closer to the basket but Olajuwon would cause players to over commit to one of his counter moves and put them completely out of position. The ability to recover was reduced greatly if you were faked into believing a shot was going up as we've seen with Grant and Hardaway.

Once again we'll see Anthony Bowie leave Elie when Olajuwon does a post shimmy.

Additional clips:

Magic Alternate Offense

Both sides created offense through other means. The Magic had Anfernee Hardaway, a very athletic, tall PG  that could create his own shot or make a quick cut to the basket.

Several Magic players could also post up if they had the size advantage. In these clips we see Dennis Scott creating some post offense.


Rockets Alternate Offense

The Rockets had Sam Cassell, a crafty, fearless PG in his second year. He could create his own shot or post up to initiate the offense

They also had Clyde Drexler in his 12th season in the league. Although he couldn't create his own shot as well as when he was on the Trailblazers, he was still a solid transition player who could post up and carry some of the mid-range load.


I hope a review of the two sides instills a bit of appreciation for just how amazing this series was. The difficult road capped by a series that pitted the star players' skills directly against one another places this among my personal favorites. 

We'll end this post with a clip of the final possessions of the series. Hakeem made sure to end this run in style.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.