ORLANDO, Fla. -- For four quarters and one five-minute overtime period, the Houston Rockets and the Orlando Magic traded blow for blow. But when it came time to put an end to a classic, the best player in basketball, Hakeem Olajuwon, stepped to the forefront.
Olajuwon scored on a tip-in of Clyde Drexler's missed shot with three-tenths of a second left in overtime to give the Rockets a 120-118 win last night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The shot capped a 31-point night for Olajuwon, and took away the home-court advantage of the Magic, who find themselves trailing a playoff series for the first time this season.
"It's been like this since the beginning of the playoffs, coming from behind to win," said Olajuwon. "This was a classic example of what's been happening to us this year."
The Rockets won for the sixth straight time on the road in the playoffs, tying a playoff record. That mark tied the 1991 Chicago Bulls. The Rockets also tied a record for total playoff road wins with eight, the same number won by the 1981 Houston team.
In the land of Shaq and the Magic Kingdom, the popular slogan to describe the team during its impressive playoff run is "Why not us, why not now?"
Maybe the defending-champion Rockets can now claim a popular slogan as their own: "Been there, done that."
The players that make up the heart of the Rockets know what it takes to win a title, and they definitely know what it takes to overcome a little adversity. And they showed just that last night as they first overcame a 20-point first-half deficit and later a three-point deficit in the final seconds of regulation.
On a team led by Olajuwon and Drexler, it was point guard Kenny Smith and power forward Robert Horry who stepped into the starring roles. Smith's three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left in regulation, coming after Nick Anderson missed four free throws in the final 10 seconds, tied the game at 110.
Then Horry stepped up. First he blocked a potentially game-tying three-point attempt by Dennis Scott at the buzzer. Then he hit a pair of three-pointers at the start of overtime that got Houston on the right track.
"We were very fortunate to win this game," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "Robert Horry's overall game was phenomenal."
Scott got his revenge with 5.5 seconds left in overtime, hitting a three-pointer to tie the game at 118. But the Rockets, after calling a timeout, inbounded the ball to Drexler who drove the lane. His shot missed, but with O'Neal coming over to help, that left Olajuwon open under the basket and he scored the tip that gave Houston the win.
Having led by as many as 20 points in the first half only to blow it and fall behind by as many as nine in the third quarter, the Magic staged an impressive comeback in the fourth. Orlando began the final period with a 17-9 run, and when Anfernee Hardaway hit a three-pointer from the left corner with 6:48 left the Magic had a 98-96 lead.
"In our league, 20 points, especially in the first half, isn't anything. It's not really an insurmountable margin," said Smith. "We felt if we got it under 17 points in the first half, we'd be in good shape."
The Rockets did better than that, reducing Orlando's 20-point lead to 11 at the break.
The Magic dominated the first half in shooting percentage (51.0 percent to 41.9 percent), rebounding (25-19) and three-pointers (five to three). And yet despite leading by as many as 20 points, the lead was just 61-50 at the half because Drexler provided a late pick-up by scoring the final seven points.
The Rockets early looked as if they were hurt from the long layoff -- they clinched against San Antonio last Friday.
And the Magic, with the home crowd roaring its approval took advantage. By the midway point of the quarter the Magic led by as many as 12 and Horace Grant (seven points, nine rebounds) and Hardaway (11 points) were dominating their positions as expected.
Aside from Olajuwon (10 points in the first quarter), the Houston players appeared tentative going to the basket and the rest of the team combined to hit just three of 15 shots from the field.
The Magic led by as many as 15 points in the quarter before settling for a 30-19 lead -- and O'Neal had yet to get involved.
O'Neal had picked up two fouls in the first quarter, which limited him to two points and one rebound in seven minutes. Orlando's game plan at the start of the second quarter was clear get O'Neal going. It succeeded.
He scored seven of Orlando's first nine points of the second quarter (including one lob dunk in the face of Olajuwon). O'Neal's hook shot and free throw with 8:43 left increased Orlando's lead to 39-25.
Later Anderson caught fire, scoring 11 points (including three three-pointers) over a span of just under three minutes. The final three-pointer came with 3:46 left, gave Orlando a 57-37 lead and the Magic looked on the verge of blowing Houston out of the arena.
And making things worse for the Rockets, Olajuwon picked up his third foul, sending him to the bench with 3:10 left. But Mario Elie scored on consecutive lay-ups, starting the Rockets on an 11-4 run to end the half.
It was clear at the start of the third quarter that the Rockets' resuscitation process was complete. Smith, Drexler and Elie began driving to the basket, and shots that were clanging off the rim in the first half were finally catching the bottom of the net.
When Elie made a three-pointer with 5:51 left the game was suddenly tied at 69. And Drexler followed with a driving lay-up, giving Houston a 71-69 lead and completing a 28-10 run that began at the end of the second quarter.
ORLANDO MAGIC vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS
(Rockets lead series, 1-0)
Last night: Rockets 120, Magic 118
Tomorrow: At Orlando, 9 p.m.
Sunday: At Houston, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday: At Houston, 9 p.m.
June 16: At Houston, 9 p.m.*
June 18: At Orlando, 7:30 p.m.*
June 21: At Orlando, 9 p.m.*
* -- if necessary; TV: Chs. 11, 4