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Ralph Sampson remembers it well. At 7-foot-4, he wasn’t the guy likely to heave up a last-second shot. The former Houston Rockets center did just that in 1986, and he did it to perfection.

In Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference Finals, Sampson’s miraculous shot off an out-of-bounds play with one second left and the game tied, stunned and eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers. Sampson’s heroics earned the Rockets a ticket to Boston for the NBA Finals. Sampson relived that moment 34 years later, saying not only did that game-winner eliminate the Lakers, but he was told it also motivated them.

Ralph Sampson and the Houston Rockets stunned the LA Lakers in ’86

Ralph Sampson of the Sacramento Kings sits in the locker room prior to the start of an NBA basketball game circa 1989 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. Sampson played for the Kings from 1989-90. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

The Lakers were the overwhelming favorites against Ralph Sampson and the Houston Rockets when they met in the Western Conference Finals in 1986. Armed with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and more, LA had been to the last four NBA Finals, winning two.

The Lakers finished with the best record in the Western Conference, 11 games better than the Midwest Division champion Rockets. LA swept the Spurs in the opening round of the playoffs before eliminating the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the semifinals.

The Lakers had their sights set on a rematch with the Boston Celtics for the NBA title. Maybe they were looking past the Rockets. Maybe the Rockets were just better. In either case, the Rockets sent the Lakers packing in five games.

Los Angeles actually won the series opener at home but promptly went out and lost the next three games by double digits. In the fifth game on the road, the Rockets had the ball at half court after a timeout with one second showing on the clock and the game deadlocked at 112-112.

Rodney McCray lobbed the ball into Sampson, who jumped, turned, and pushed the ball toward the hoop from just inside the foul line. The ball bounced up off the rim and then fell through, shocking and eliminating the Lakers.

Ralph Sampson said his shot not only eliminated the Lakers, but it motivated them

Thirty-four years after his game-winning shot, Sampson relived the moment on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast. He and Maxwell were teammates in Houston for the 1986-87 season. Maxwell referred to it as one of the greatest shots in NBA history.

“Our boy Rod McCray said it wasn’t the shot — it was the pass because he inbounded it,” Sampson said. “I tell people all the time that it was a great shot, obviously, in my career, but we had played Denver in a grueling seven-game series with Alex English, Kiki (Vandeweghe), and all that crew. The seventh game was at their place. I had fouled out, Akeem (Olajuwon) had fouled out. The crew won that game for us.

“We get to LA two days later and they just roasted us. They just opened the door and Magic and the boys, you know how they fly around throwing lobs. OK great. They thought they was gonna win. We regrouped, and we had a meeting the next day. We won the next game, and we won the next game and the next. Then we go back to LA and then we win that game on that shot.

“Talked to Magic and said, ‘You won the first game, but we were gonna beat you anyway. If I had not made that shot, we were going back to Houston (up 3-2). We were going to kick your tail anyway, going back to Houston, but you already know that. He’s like, ‘Yeah, you probably right.’ But then he said you motivated us because the next two years we won back-to-back.

“It was a good shot — a good time in my career. You win in LA, you know the rivalry. You’ve been there — Boston, Lakers. You win on either of those courts, it’s pretty special.”

Sampson and the Rockets went on to lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals


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Sampson and Olajuwon made up the Twin Towers and caused much trouble for their opponent. Their next opponent, however, was armed with arguably the best frontcourt in NBA history. The Celtics had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish in their starting lineup. They added veteran Bill Walton in the offseason.

Boston had the NBA’s best record at 67-15. Like the Lakers, they were significant favorites over the Rockets. The Celtics took care of business, easily winning the first two games at home.

They split the next two games, and the Celtics looked to close out the series in Game 5 in Houston.

Sampson found himself in the spotlight as he and Boston guard Jerry Sichting got into the infamous brawl that led to Sampson’s ejection but clearly fired up the crowd and his teammates. Houston went out to win the fifth game easily, 111-96.

The Celtics proved too much at home in Game 6 and closed out the series with a 114-97 victory.