ORLAND0, Fla. -- When the 53-minute classic finally had ended, having provided more thrills than any Hollywood thriller could serve up, Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich tried his best to sum up what he had just witnessed.
"First of all," Tomjanovich said, "let me say what a great, great sport we have. It was an amazing game."
This year's NBA postseason has been described as one of the most exciting ever. And last night's opening game of the NBA Finals didn't disappoint as the Rockets got a tip-in by Hakeem Olajuwon with three-tenths of a second left in overtime to defeat the Orlando Magic, 120-118, and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
It's a game that will go down as a classic. And it was only fitting it would end with a shot by the game's best player, Olajuwon.
Olajuwon finished with 31 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four blocks, and yet his could be described as almost a supporting role.
That's because it was Kenny Smith who set up the finish that, with seconds left in regulation, seemed improbable. It was Smith's three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left that sent the game into overtime. The shot came after Nick Anderson (best performance by a player in a choke role) missed four free throws in the final eight seconds that would have won the game for the Magic.
Smith finished with 23 points, hitting a Finals-record five three-pointers in the third quarter. The Rockets had 11 three-pointers in the second half, and 14 in the game as the team tries to win its fourth straight playoff series while lacking home-court advantage.
"It's better for us to start on the road," Smith said. "The expectation levels aren't as high because a team is expected to win on its home court. That takes a little of the pressure off us on the road."
It was the sixth straight win on the road for the Rockets, tying an NBA record set by the Chicago Bulls in 1991. It was also the eighth road win in this year's playoffs, tying the NBA record set by the 1981 Rockets.
And they did it the hard way, falling behind by as many as 20 points in the first half, before roaring back.
Now it will be interesting to see how the Magic, which has matured throughout the playoffs, will respond. Orlando, whose slogan is "Why not us, Why not now?" has not trailed in any round of the playoffs.
"It's very difficult to lose a game like that," said Orlando guard Anfernee Hardaway, who scored 26 points. "When you're up 20, you don't expect a team to come back like they did."
Not the way the Magic dominated the first half, leading in shooting percentage (51.0 percent to 41.9 percent), rebounding (25-19) and three-pointers (five to three).
And even though the lead reached 20 points with less than four minutes left in the second quarter, it was down to 11, 61-50, at the half because Houston's Clyde Drexler provided a late pick-up by scoring the final seven points.
"In our league, 20 points in the first half isn't anything," Smith said. "The game was up and down, so that isn't an insurmountable margin. We thought if we could get it under 15 by the half, we'd be in good shape."
And it was clear at the start of the third quarter that the resuscitation process was complete. Smith, Drexler (23 points) and Mario Elie (18 points) 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. Elie's three-pointer with 5:51 tied the game at 69, and a layup by Drexler gave the Rockets the lead.
Over the final 2:10 of the quarter, Smith hit three three-pointers (Robert Horry would add another during the span). Smith scored 15 points in the third and Houston was suddenly in control, leading by as many as nine points and taking an 87-80 lead into the final quarter.
"In the first half, I had a lot of opportunities, but I didn't feel comfortable," said Smith, who was thoroughly outplayed by Hardaway for 24 minutes. "Then in the second half I was getting into the slots quicker, and my shot was blessed and starting going in."
And yet Orlando fought back, holding a 110-107 lead with Anderson going to the line with 7.9 seconds left after being fouled by Horry. Anderson missed both, but grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Drexler. Anderson then missed two more, setting up Smith's game-tying shot with 1.6 seconds left, setting up the overtime.
It appeared the game might go into double-overtime after Orlando's Dennis Scott hit a three-pointer with 5.5 seconds left to tie the game at 118. But Drexler took the inbounds pass, drove the lane and drew the defense. That left Olajuwon under the basket for the game-winning tip.
"Clyde did a fantastic job by penetrating, and I had the inside position," Olajuwon said. "When I tipped it in it was so quiet that I didn't realize the basket was in."
But it was, leaving the Magic to regroup. The winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the NBA Finals 34 times, and Orlando knows it has to win tomorrow to avoid going to Houston down 2-0.
"We let one get away," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "We made some crucial mistakes late in the game, and they were able to hit three-point shots.
-! "Don't tell me we're boring."
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