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25-year Orlandoversary: Hardaway’s winner lifts Magic past Rockets on Christmas Day

Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway (R) drives p Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images

The first Christmas Day game ever played in Orlando came on this day 25 years ago and it certainly did not disappoint.

In a rematch of the 1995 NBA Finals, the Orlando Magic got a modicum of revenge. Anfernee Hardaway again played the role of hero with a last-second shot to sink the Houston Rockets, 92-90.

After sweeping the Magic in the Finals, Houston returned to Orlando Arena for the first time on Dec. 25, 1995. The Rockets used a big third quarter to take the lead, but in the end, Hardaway sent Orlando fans hope happy on Christmas.

The Magic were 21-6 and for a while, it looked like they might cruise. Orlando outscored the Rockets 22-10 in the second quarter to take a 51-38 lead into the locker room. A monster third quarter by Houston temporarily changed the contest’s outlook.

After winning Finals MVP against Orlando, Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon scored 16 of his game-high 30 points in the third quarter. Back-to-back three-pointers by Mario Elie and Robert Horry gave the Rockets a 74-70 lead at the end of three.

That advantage would balloon to as many as eight in the final period, but losing at home was just something the Magic just didn’t do. In just his fifth game back from injury, center Shaquille O’Neal spurred the Magic comeback while playing with five fouls.

O’Neal paced Orlando with a team-high tying 22 points and a game-high 18 rebounds, but it was the supporting cast that delivered the Magic late. With less than 90 seconds to play, Dennis Scott’s three-pointer drew the Magic even at 90 apiece.

Olajuwon’s final shot of the night was an air ball that gave the Magic the final shot with just 24 seconds left. After hitting two buzzer beaters earlier in the year, Hardaway was forced to his right by Elie before pulling up from 12 feet. The ball rimmed out, hit glass and fell back through to give the Magic a 92-90 lead with 3.1 seconds to play.

Horry missed the winning three-point attempt as time expired. Horry and Elie complimented Olajuwon with 15 points apiece. Olajuwon grabbed 12 boards in the loss. Mark Bryant added 10 points, including the final eight for Houston, off the bench.

Like O’Neal, Hardaway scored 22 points in the win as the Magic improved to 22-6 and extended their home winning streak to 22 games. Scott added 19 points in the victory. Horace Grant and Nick Anderson each finished with 11 points.

After getting swept in the NBA Finals by Houston, Hardaway’s heroics would begin a string of 10 straight wins for Orlando over the Rockets. They came on this day a quarter-century ago.