NBA FINALS : Magic Is Nicked in Close Shave : Game 1: Anderson misses four crucial free throws and Olajuwon gives Rockets a 120-118 overtime victory after they trailed by 20.


Wednesday night had turned into Thursday morning, Nick Anderson had turned into Bill Buckner, and only one team was left standing. To the surprise of everyone and, by this time, no one, it was the Houston Rockets, already having rounded improbable and headed for miraculous.

They were down by 20 in the second quarter to the bigger, stronger, younger beasts of the East, the Orlando Magic, and came back to tie, then came back from the dead when Anderson missed four free throws in the final 10.5 seconds of regulation. Given this gift, the Rockets made overtime when Kenny Smith made a three-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining, then won the opener of the NBA finals, 120-118, before 16,010 at Orlando Arena on Hakeem Olajuwon's tip-in with 0.3 seconds showing.

It was 12:02 a.m. by the time the 2-hour 46-minute marathon had ended. Shaquille O'Neal had gotten 26 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists and seven turnovers; Olajuwon 31 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Smith had set finals records with five three-pointers in a quarter--the third--and seven in the game while the Rockets established a team mark.

And Anderson had to unwrap his hands from his throat and explain.

"I've been in that situation several times before and come through," he said. "Tonight, it just didn't happen."

It started to not happen with 10.5 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. The Magic was up, 110-107, and had the ball. Anderson was fouled by Robert Horry. One make would have turned it into a four-point game, out of reach even by Rocket standards in their unlikely playoff run.

Anderson missed the first.

Then the second.

Clyde Drexler got a hand on the rebound for the Rockets, but Anderson jumped high to control. Drexler fouled him immediately, now with 7.9 seconds remaining. Same situation.

Anderson missed the first.

Then the second.

"Being in that situation," teammate Dennis Scott would say later, "it's something you dream about. He makes one of those free throws, we win the game."

Instead, Orlando's Horace Grant, almost getting another offensive rebound, tipped the ball out front, where Smith controlled. Timeout, Rockets, 6.1 showing.

When play resumed, the Magic tried to take an intentional delay of game, but Anderson stepped over the sideline after Mario Elie had already thrown the ball into Smith. He got to the middle of the floor and got defender Anfernee Hardaway to bite on a head fake.

As Hardaway came down, Smith went up. The shot--the record-breaker and the Magic-breaker--dropped through and it was 110-110 heading into overtime.

That's where Orlando got its big-time clutch basket, Scott's three-pointer from the corner with 5.5 seconds remaining. The score was 118-118, and Rik Smits was nowhere in sight.

Trouble, however, was still right around the corner, by a different name. The Rockets called timeout and designed a play for Drexler to penetrate, hoping his explosiveness would force O'Neal to leave Olajuwon to help on defense.

It came down according to plan. Drexler blew past Anderson on the perimeter and came down the right side. His one-hander from a few feet out missed, but only after O'Neal had come over. Olajuwon was free to reach up with his right arm and tip in the winner.

"Clyde did a fantastic job of penetrating and shooting so high," Olajuwon said. "I had inside position. When I tipped it in, it was so quiet, I didn't even realize the basket went in for a few seconds."

"We have such a big heart," Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, continuing his playoff theme. "This team never gives up. We hang in there and fight.

"Just a character win for us."

More than that, really. The victory was the Rockets' sixth in a row on the road, tying the playoff record set by Chicago in 1991. It was also their eighth victory overall away from the Summit in the postseason, tying another mark, this one set by Houston in 1981.

"We let one get away," Scott said.

They more than let it get away. They threw it away.

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