During his prime, Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway seemed to thrive with the ball in his hands in crunch time. The Houston Rockets learned that firsthand more than once.
Houston got the better of the Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals, but on Christmas Day in 1995, Hardaway was the hero at Orlando Arena in the first matchup between the teams since the Finals. On this day 25 years ago, he did it again – this time in Houston.
Under interim head coach Richie Adubato, the Magic were playing well as they arrived at The Summit on March 12, 1997. Orlando started strong, but trailed late. That’s when Hardaway saved the day in a 96-95 win for the Magic.
Orlando led by as many as 20 points in the first half, but defeat seemed like an inevitability midway through the final quarter. A 7-0 run had given the Rockets an 88-82 lead with less than six minutes to play, but Orlando showed resolve.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Gerald Wilkins and Dennis Scott tied the game at 88 with less than five minutes to play. From there, the contest saw two ties and six lead changes.
Houston’s final lead came on a tip-in by Eddie Johnson with 42 seconds left. After an exchange of misses by Orlando’s Horace Grant and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, the contest came down to one possession.
The Magic trailed 95-94 when they inbounded with 7.3 seconds left. The ball went to Hardaway who drove past Mario Elie. Hardaway was able to get in the paint, but standing in his way was Olajuwon – the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots.
Hardaway was able to hang in the air before lofting one over the outstretched arm of Olajuwon. His shot hit nothing but net with 1.1 seconds remaining. Johnson’s three-pointer on the other end was no good as the Magic claimed victory.
More than midway through the second quarter, Orlando led 51-31. The Rockets closed the first half on an 18-6 run and had drawn to within three by the end of the third quarter. After Johnson’s trey tied the game on the first possession of the fourth quarter, Olajuwon gave the Rockets their first lead since the opening minutes.
Olajuwon led all scorers with 32 points to go with 12 rebounds. Kevin Willis added 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds in the loss. Johnson finished with 16 points off the Houston bench.
Hardaway’s game-winner capped a 31-point night. Wilkins tallied 19 points while Horace Grant added 16 for Orlando. Scott chipped in with 14 points.
The final points and the lasting memory from that night however, came courtesy of the man known as “Penny”. It came on this day a quarter-century ago.