HOUSTON -- For a brief second, there was an opening. And with his team down two points and the clock winding down, New York Knicks guard John Starks -- who to that point had stepped up for 16 fourth-quarter points -- saw from behind the three-point line an opportunity to bring his team an NBA title.
But Hakeem Olajuwon, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, would have none of that. With his team's season on the line, Olajuwon partially blocked Starks' three-point attempt with two seconds left, preserving Houston's 86-84 win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last night.
So it all comes down to Game 7 for the Rockets who, facing elimination for the second time in this year's playoffs, instead tied the series at 3. They said before last night's game that they were happy to be back home at The Summit, and now the Rockets go into Wednesday's finale with history on their side: Home teams in Game 7 of the NBA Finals have won 19 straight games.
"That's why the home-court means something," said Olajuwon, who also won league MVP this season. "We cannot be in a better position, playing Game 7 at The Summit."
Houston, attempting to become just the sixth team to win an NBA championship after trailing 3-2, used its aggressiveness to jump on the Knicks early, and its defense to survive a furious New York rally.
Starks single-handedly kept the Knicks in the game, scoring 16 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter when he hit five of six shots. But he couldn't reach the rim on the shot that counted.
"Hakeem made a great play on the block," said Knicks coach Pat Riley. "John found a gap and found some air space, but we just couldn't get the ball over his hand."
Olajuwon was superb on both ends of the court. He led all scorers with 30 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked four shots and kept Knicks center Patrick Ewing scoreless in the final period. And he was able to make an impact despite playing the last 6:08 with five fouls.
But, unlike Games 4 and 5 in New York, Houston got production elsewhere. The Rockets' bench outscored New York's 25-7, with Carl Herrera scoring 10 of his 12 points (6-for-6 from the field) during a key second-quarter run.
Down 27-26, the Rockets used Herrera's dunk to start a 9-0 run that, ending with a dunk by Olajuwon, had Houston ahead 35-27.
The Knicks would go just over four minutes without scoring when Ewing ended the drought, hitting a 15-foot jumper with 4:58 left. But that did little to jump-start the New York offense, which hit just four field goals in the quarter.
"The bench came up big this game," Herrera said. "We followed the game plan, and that's something that we didn't do in the last game."
Something point guard Kenny Smith hasn't done this entire series was show up, at least statistically.
But, playing key fourth-quarter minutes for the first time this series, he crawled out of his hole long enough to hit a huge three-pointer with 3:18 left. The Knicks had pulled to within 78-77, but Smith's shot ended a 6-0 Knicks run and increased Houston's lead to 84-77 with 3:18 left.
"I don't feel any personal gratification or anything," Smith said of the shot. "I thought about Game 7 when I hit it."
Smith and the Houston fans celebrated wildly after the shot but the Knicks, as is the pattern in this grueling defensive series, would not go quietly.
Starks saw to that, scoring on a layup and then a three-pointer with 1:17 left that had New York within 84-82. It gave Starks 16 points for the quarter.
"He's amazing," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said of Starks. "We were in a defense where we're never leaving Starks . . . and there's a little crack in the defense and this guy is getting them off."
Two free throws by Olajuwon with 38.3 seconds left had Houston ahead 86-82. But again New York would get to within two, 86-84, after Anthony Mason took a pass from a driving Derek Harper and hit a short jumper.
The Knicks had a chance to tie after Olajuwon missed a jumper. But Starks turned the ball over as he attempted to pass off to Ewing.
Smith had an off-balance jumper in the lane rim out on Houston's next possession, setting up New York's final attempt by Starks.
It was blocked by Olajuwon, the only miss of the quarter for Starks.
"I was just trying to get close to the ball knowing that there was five seconds left [when the ball was inbounded]," Olajuwon said. "Starks is dangerous, so on the pick and roll I switched and tried to make him change his shot."
Change it he did, deflecting it short to lengthen the Rockets season to the maximum.
"One of the biggest wins in Rockets history," Tomjanovich said. "For the first time, in the franchise history, we're going into the seventh game with a chance to win a championship."
New York has played in three Game 7's in this year's playoffs, winning all three. But this will be the first time the Knicks have attempted to win a Game 7 on the road.
"It's a very disheartening loss for us," Riley said. "I know what history has to say about seven games, and I'm sure we'll be reading that.
"Maybe this is the way it has to be for us to get to the promised land," Riley added. "If somebody told me on [the first day of practice] that we will guarantee you a seventh game at Houston, would you take it now? I'd say 'yes.'
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Series tied, 3-3)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84
, Gm. 6: Rockets 86, Knicks 84
Date .. .. .. .. ..Site .. .. .. .. .. ..Time
Wednesday .. .. ..at Houston .. .. .. .. ...9
TV: Chs. 2 and 4