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Rockets End Magical Season With Championship

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 15, 1995

HOUSTON, JUNE 14 -- The Houston Rockets disposed of the Orlando Magic once and for all tonight, and after a season in which they've overcome everything from injuries to a midseason shakeup to, finally, one of the toughest playoff schedules ever, the end was almost anticlimactic.

Hakeem Olajuwon scored 35 points, Mario Elie 22 and Robert Horry 21 as the Rockets broke open a close game in the final period and completed a four-game sweep in the NBA Finals with an almost routine 113-101 victory in front of 16,611 at the Summit.

A team that never felt it got the respect it deserved when it won the NBA championship a year ago now can celebrate a title that will be long remembered. No team ever won a championship after flirting with disaster so many times. No champion has ever won as many road playoff games. No team has ever taken such a variety of parts and molded them so successfully.

"I don't have a word to describe how I feel about this team," Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said after a long, emotional championship trophy ceremony at midcourt. "Their character. Their guts. No one in the history of the league has done what this team has done."

Orlando stayed in the game by making a finals record 14 three-pointers. The Magic got 25 points apiece from center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Penny Hardaway, but O'Neal also committed six turnovers.

His mistakes didn't matter because Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson continued to have trouble hitting their shots, going a combined 6 for 16.

Houston got double-figure scoring from five players. Clyde Drexler had 15 points though he made only 4 of 13 shots, but he made up for it with nine rebounds and eight assists. Olajuwon had 15 rebounds and six assists to go with his 35 points.

The Rockets were built around the incomparable Olajuwon, who was named the finals' most valuable player for a second consecutive year. But they probably couldn't have won without Drexler, who was acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers in February in a trade that sent forward Otis Thorpe to Portland. Drexler gave the Rockets another dimension on offense and the Rockets helped end Drexler's frustrating quest for a championship.

Drexler and Olajuwon were college teammates when the University of Houston lost the 1983 NCAA tournament championship game to North Carolina State at the last second, and tonight the two old friends celebrated a different kind of ending.

"I'm just so happy for Clyde," Olajuwon said. "I'm happy to be part of it. We didn't do it together in college. Now we're back together. It's a special story. It'll be something that will be a chapter in my book."

Drexler, finishing his 12th season, had promised to reveal a more emotional side if he won his first championship. He came close when he leaned into a microphone and told the celebrating fans: "How sweet it is!"

Otherwise, his comments were as cool and in control as his play on the floor.

"I'm just happy to be playing with the best player on the planet," he said, referring to Olajuwon. "This is wonderful. We tried to win quietly. We wanted to be like the teams that didn't trash talk and didn't do anything to bring negative attention to themselves. We put on our hard hats and went to work."

The Rockets are the sixth team in NBA history to sweep the finals. But that's only part of their story. Their 47 regular season victories are the fewest for a champion since Washington won with 44 in 1978. They won after falling behind Utah 2-1 in a best-of-five first-round series and they won after falling behind Phoenix 3-1 in a best-of-seven conference semifinal series.

They're the first team to defeat four 50-game winners in the playoffs and they played five games in which they faced elimination. Since trailing Phoenix 3-1, they've been dominant, winning 11 of 13 games, including a record seven in a row on the road. If once upon a time people thought last year's Rockets were a fluke, this was different.

Orlando never recovered after letting Game 1 slip away at home when Anderson missed four foul shots in the final 10.6 seconds of regulation. The Magic went on to lose 120-118 in overtime.

The Rockets trailed by six points in the first half and -- despite three quick fouls on O'Neal to start the second half -- were in front only 77-76 when the fourth quarter began. They finally broke it open when the Magic turned the ball over five times in a 2 1/2-minute stretch. Elie answered those mistakes with a pair of three-pointers and a fast break basket to open up an 88-80 lead with 7:52 remaining.

"We had a chance to push the lead out, but we took some bad shots," Hardaway said. "This was one of our best games. We had a chance to win it, but let it go. After the game, we looked over there at the Rockets celebrating. We'll have other chances. Watching them is the best motivation you can have."

Orlando moved within 90-87, but it was all Houston after that. Horry hit a three-pointer with 5:45 left. O'Neal missed again and Sam Cassell's foul shots with 5:10 left made it 95-87. Anthony Bowie missed a three-pointer and Olajuwon's jumper with 4:36 left took it to 97-87.

"I don't know if a player has ever played as great as Hakeem through the playoffs," Tomjanovich said. "I don't know if a team has made a major trade during the season and kept its chemistry together. . . . This is a special team. I'm the proudest guy in the world."

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© 1995 The Washington Post Company