That quest took a turn for the better when Drexler had the good fortune to be traded to the Rockets. Horry, on the other hand, was lucky not to be traded away from Houston. A deal last season that would have sent him and since-waived forward Matt Bullard to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott fell through when Elliott failed his physical—but not before Horry had been issued a uniform by the Pistons. That jersey is now framed in Horry's bedroom as a reminder that the Rockets were willing to trade him because they felt he wasn't aggressive offensively. "Every time I look at that jersey it tells me, Don't hesitate, take the shot," Horry says. He didn't hesitate in Game 3 as he scored 20 points, including a clutch three-pointer that gave Houston a 104-100 lead with 14.1 seconds left.
Horry was open for that shot because the Magic was busy double-teaming Olajuwon. During the first three games, Orlando (like San Antonio before it) never quite got the hang of guarding the Dream. In Game 1, when the Magic doubled him nearly every time he touched the ball, the rest of the Rockets made Orlando pay by burying 14 of their 32 three-point attempts, and somehow Olajuwon still got 31 points and seven assists. In Game 2 Orlando left O'Neal largely on his own against Olajuwon in order to give the other Rockets fewer open jump shots. The Magic held Houston to only five threes, but Olajuwon scored 34 points and Cassell added 31 on a variety of drives and jumpers in a 117-106 Houston win—the Rockets' seventh straight road victory, a postseason record. "They're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place," Smith said after Game 2. "If they double Dream, we hurt them with the threes, but if they don't double him, he might go for 50 or 60."
Olajuwon didn't put up those kinds of numbers, but given his teammates' contributions, he didn't have to. His much-anticipated confrontation with O'Neal lived up to its billing, with both centers playing so well—Olajuwon had the scoring edge, averaging 32.0 points over the first three games to O'Neal's 29.0, while Shaq had the rebounding advantage, 12.7 to 10.3—that they canceled each other out. O'Neal, with the help of his teammates, kept Olajuwon from repeating the kind of transcendent performances he had delivered earlier in the playoffs. Instead of allowing him the long series of fakes and spins that leave defenders looking foolish, the Magic limited Olajuwon to one or two moves before he either shot or passed the ball. The problem was that sometimes one or two moves were all he needed.
While O'Neal was dealing with Olajuwon's grace, the Dream was combating Shaq's power. O'Neal was often able to bull his way so close to the basket that he was impossible to stop once he received the ball. "Playing Shaq is a serious workout," Olajuwon said after Game 2. "I'm going home and going to bed."
But as intriguing as the battle of centers was, it was the other matchups that swung the series in Houston's favor. O'Neal and Hardaway had to carry the Magic offensively because forward Dennis Scott's jumper deserted him (he shot .258, including 5 for 23 from three-point range, through the first three games) and guard Nick Anderson's confidence seemed to do the same. Anderson became the series' tragic figure when, with Orlando ahead 110-107 in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 1, he missed four straight free throws, any one of which would have surely sealed the win for the Magic.
Anderson vowed that he would not be affected by the misses—"I've seen tragedies," he said, alluding to his youth in inner-city Chicago, "and missing free throws is not a tragedy." But in the next two games he looked nothing like the player who had gotten the better of two superstars, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller, in earlier series. In Games 2 and 3 Anderson shot a combined 8 for 27.
"The difference is, we're getting different people helping out Hakeem and Clyde every game," Cassell said after Game 3. "Shaq and Penny are carrying it all alone."
It wasn't just an accident that the Magic's supporting cast was largely ineffective. The Rockets did a masterly job of taking away the easy baskets that had made the Magic such a potent team most of the season. They limited the alley-oop passes to O'Neal for dunks. For the most part they kept Hardaway from penetrating, and when he tried to post up the smaller Houston point guards, they made sure that he set up a few feet farther from the basket than he would have liked. The open three-pointers that Scott and Anderson so often see before the defense can set up were nonexistent against the Rockets. "Before you can play defense, you have to get back on defense," Tomjanovich says. "One of the things we preach is taking away a team's transition offense, especially a team as explosive as Orlando."
Although Olajuwon appeared well on his way to winning his second consecutive Finals MVP award, the story of the series was the emergence of the rest of the Rockets. In the Rockets' victories in Orlando, it was point guard partners Smith and Cassell who played pivotal roles. Their combined heroics were especially important because it was widely suspected that their confrontation with the 6' 7" Hardaway, the Magic's first-team All-NBA point guard, would be the biggest mismatch of the series. Hardaway was expected to use his height advantage to shoot over the 6' 3" Rocket guards and his quickness to drive around them, and early in Game 1, that was what he did. Hardaway had his way with Smith, scoring 11 points in the first quarter as the Magic built a 15-point lead that grew to 20 in the second period.
But Smith responded with a 20-point second half and finished with seven three-pointers, a Finals record. His last trey, with 1.6 seconds left in regulation, sent the game into overtime, which ended on an Olajuwon tip-in with .3 of a second left. Afterward Cassell was among the first to congratulate Smith, but his compliments came with a warning. "You can relax [in Game 2]," he said, "because I'm giving you the night off."