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25-year Orlandoversary: O’Neal’s putback lifts Magic past Rockets in Finals rematch

BKN HAWKS MAGIC Photo by DOUG COLLIER/AFP via Getty Images

Some fans in Orlando still haven’t gotten over the 1995 NBA Finals. The Orlando Magic seemed to have Game 1 in hand before letting it slip away and ultimately getting swept by the Houston Rockets.

It didn’t exactly make the teams even, but the Magic got some revenge the following season by sweeping the regular season series while handing the Rockets a pair of heartbreaking losses. The second of those came on this day 25 years ago.

Less than a month after Anfernee Hardaway’s game-winner lifted the Magic past Houston on Christmas Day, it was Shaquille O’Neal who did in the Rockets at The Summit, 97-96.

For the second time in as many meetings, Houston held an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter on Jan. 21, 1996. Orlando however, responded with a 16-7 run before Mark Bryant’s basket gave the Rockets a 96-95 lead with 28.1 seconds to play.

Orlando was unable to hold for the final shot initially, but an offensive rebound made that possible. Throughout the early parts of the 1995-96 season, game-winning shots had been a Hardaway specialty. Hardaway had spurred the comeback, but it was forward Dennis Scott who fired away with the shot clock winding down.

Scott’s three-point shot was no good, but O’Neal was able to grab the rebound and put it back in with just 4.7 seconds remaining. With time for one last shot for Houston, O’Neal played hero on the other end, blocking Sam Cassell’s attempt at the rim as time expired.

O’Neal finished with 29 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. To go with a game-high 13 assists and a team-high four steals, Hardaway finished with 28 points, but scored 13 of those in the final quarter to spur the comeback.

After trailing by eight, it was Hardaway’s trey that drew the Magic even at 90 with 2:40 remaining. Hardaway would answer with a pair of dunks to give Orlando a one-point lead each time. His final points of the night answered a jumper from Hakeem Olajuwon, who led Houston with a game-high 30 points, and gave Orlando a 95-94 lead.

In addition to Olajuwon’s 30 points and 11 boards, Clyde Drexler scored 20 points for Houston in the loss. Cassell and Bryant each added 14 points while Robert Horry scored 10 to go along with a game-high 10 assists.

During O’Neal’s time in Orlando, the Magic and Olajuwon’s Rockets split 12 meetings. Although Houston swept the Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals, Shaq would not only get the win over “The Dream”, but he would play the role of hero. He did so on this day a quarter-century ago.