HOUSTON -- Why not the Houston Rockets? Why not again?
It was necessary to win two NBA rings to do it, but the Rockets convincingly earned the respect of the basketball world last night as they defeated the Orlando Magic, 113-101, in Game 4 to earn a sweep of the NBA Finals.
The win completed an improbable championship run for the Rockets, who became the lowest-seeded team (sixth) to win a championship. Houston became the first team in league history to win a playoff series against four opponents with more than 50 wins, and won the title without the benefit of home-court advantage in any of their series.
It also marked the first time since the Washington Bullets in 1978 that a team has won a championship without both winning a division title and finishing with one of the top three records in the league.
"No one has ever done what this team has done," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "We had nonbelievers all along the way. I have one thing to say to all those nonbelievers: never underestimate the heart of a champion."
As usual, Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets with 35 points and 15 rebounds. And there was plenty of help to go around, with Mario Elie stepping up to have his biggest game of the series by scoring 22 points, including four three-pointers.
Robert Horry added 21 points and Clyde Drexler, with his third chance to win a championship, had 15.
"I'm just so happy for Clyde, to win it for the first time," said Olajuwon, who was voted MVP of the Finals.
Said Drexler: "This was great. How sweet it is!
"It's the first time and it's just a great thing to be part of a class organization."
The Rockets had a one-point lead going into the final quarter. But Shaquille O'Neal, who finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, opened the fourth quarter with a dunk to put the Magic ahead, 78-77.
Then the Rockets, led by ex-CBA player Elie, helped put the game away. Elie hit three-pointers at the start and finish of an 11-2 run by the Rockets, giving Houston an 88-80 lead with 7:52 left.
Orlando had one last run, and closed to within 90-87 after a lay-up by Anthony Bowie with 6:01 left. But Horry hit a three-pointer at the start of nine straight points scored by the Rockets. And after two free throws by Olajuwon with 4:07 left the Rockets had a 99-87 lead and sensed that the championship was within their grasp.
After struggling from long range the first three games of the series, the Magic finally found its range in the first half by making nine of 14 three-point shots. And with Brian Shaw's 12 first-half points coming via the three-point route, the Magic was able to overcome an 11-point first-quarter deficit to take a 51-47 halftime lead.
And Orlando was able to do it without much from O'Neal, who had four points and three rebounds in 22 first-half minutes.
With fans sporting T-shirts saying "How Sweep It Is," the Rockets were energetic at the start in taking an 18-7 lead. Of course the run was led by Olajuwon, who scored eight points in the first six minutes, with his jumper with 6:01 left giving Houston its biggest lead of the half.
But the blowout would not develop just yet. That's because the Rockets suddenly went cold, missing nine of their final 10 shots of the quarter. Meanwhile, the Magic was having some success posting Dennis Scott up in the paint against Mario Elie. Scott scored seven points in the quarter, which ended with a 14-5 run by the Magic. Shaw's three-pointer with 23.9 seconds left had Orlando within 23-21 at quarter's end.
A steal and a layup by Sam Cassell at the start of the second quarter increased Houston's lead to 25-21, but the Magic scored the next six on back-to-back three-pointers by Anfernee Hardaway and Shaw to take a 27-25 lead.
The Magic opened the second quarter with a 16-9 run, taking a 37-32 lead on Shaw's three-pointer with 7:36 left.
And that was the tone the rest of the half. The Rockets would take a one-point lead on a three-pointer by Cassell with 5:13 left. But seven of Orlando's 10 baskets in the second quarter were three-pointers three by Shaw and two by Hardaway. The Magic would lead by as many as six points on the way to a 51-47 half-time lead.
Houston got a boost from three-point shooting of its own early in the third quarter, with Kenny Smith and Robert Horry each hitting three-pointers in the first three minutes.
ORLANDO vs. HOUSTON (Rockets win series, 4-0) Game 1: Rockets 120-118, OT
Game 2: Rockets, 117-106
Game 3: Rockets, 106-103
Last night: Rockets, 113-101
FINALS SWEEPS Year .. Winner .. .. .. Loser
1959 .. Boston .. .. .. Minneapolis
1971 .. Milwaukee .. .. Baltimore
1975 .. Golden State .. Washington
1983 .. Philadelphia .. L.A. Lakers
1989 .. Detroit . .. .. L.A. Lakers
1995 .. Houston . .. .. Orlando
DOING IT THE HARD WAY
With last night's 113-101 victory over the Orlando Magic, the Houston Rockets became the lowest-seeded team to win a championship. The Rockets finished the regular season 47-35 and were seeded sixth in the West. The Rockets' rough road to their second consecutive championship:
Round .. .. .. Opponent .. .. Record .. .. Seed .. .. .. Series result
First .. .. .. Utah .. ... .. 60-22 ... .. 3rd West . .. Rockets, 3-2
Second . .. .. Phoenix ... .. 59-23 ... .. 2nd West . .. Rockets, 4-3
Conf. finals . San Antonio .. 62-20 ... .. 1st West . .. Rockets, 4-2
NBA finals ... Orlando ... .. 57-25 ... .. 1st East . .. Rockets, 4-0