Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7, 1995: "Brick" Anderson

ORLANDO - The 1995 Finals was billed as the Battle of the Big Men. Orlando was led by a young Shaquille O'Neal, a third-year center who terrorized opponents with his brute strength. Opposing him was the defending champion Houston Rockets, led by veteran Hakeem Olajuwon, a defensive wizard known around the league for his "Dream Shake."

Olajuwon was playing at the absolute peak of his career. After winning the title the previous year, Houston didn't play nearly as well in 94-95, but turned things on in the playoffs. Their run through the Western Conference was capped by Olajuwon's dismantling of league MVP David Robinson and the Spurs in the conference finals.

Orlando, on the other hand, was just getting used to this winning thing. The three series they won in the Eastern Conference were the first three they had ever won. With Shaq and fellow superstar Penny Hardaway both only 23 years old during the playoffs, it seemed like no matter what the outcome of this series, the Magic would be the team of the future.

For all the hype about the centers, though, the series was essentially decided at the end of regulation in Game 1. Orlando's Nick Anderson, who had famously stripped Michael Jordan in a key possession in Orlando's series win against the Bulls, went to the line with the Magic up 3 with 10 seconds left, needing to make only one free throw to put the game out of reach. He missed both, but grabbed the offensive rebound from his second miss himself. Fouled again, he went back to the line. Again, he missed them both.

What happened next surprised virtually no one. Given new life, Houston went down on the next possession and saw Kenny Smith make his seventh 3-pointer of the game to tie it up at 110.

In overtime, it was Orlando's turn to make a clutch shot, as Dennis Scott made a 3 with 5.5 seconds left to tie the game. But Houston had one more possession. Clyde Drexler drove to the rim, shooting a high layup over a helping Shaq. Drexler's shot missed, but without Shaq there to box him out, Olajuwon was in perfect position for the tip-in rebound, giving Houston the 120-118 victory.

Orlando never recovered, getting losing the next three games for the sweep. The effects lingered for much longer, however. After a conference finals loss the next season, Shaq left for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. Left as the team leader, Hardaway suffered several key injuries to limit his once-infinite potential. And Anderson, already a below-average free-throw shooter, was deeply affected by his four Game 1 misses. His free-throw percentage continued to haunt him, dropping to as low as 40 percent in one season, and his career never fully recovered. What was supposed to be the next great dynasty was derailed, and it took Orlando 14 years to make it back to the NBA finals.

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