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Twilight of the Gods
Richard Hoffer
June 02, 1997
In the West, aging stars of the Rockets and the Jazz gave it their best—and perhaps last—shot
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June 02, 1997

Twilight Of The Gods

In the West, aging stars of the Rockets and the Jazz gave it their best—and perhaps last—shot

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Then he scored those 31 and everyone in the Summit was shouting "Ed-die, Ed-die." Barkley said, "Well, we can take him off the milk carton now." Johnson was plainly ecstatic to be rediscovered. As his shots in Game 3 fell, and fell, and fell, he gloried in his accuracy, lifting his arms in mock surprise as he trailed back up the court. "Sometimes," he said afterward, "you've got to seize the moment, be a hero."

The night, he knew, might well serve as the capstone to a sturdy if unspectacular career (scoring average: 16.6), which included some seasons in which his play approached All-Star caliber and other years that were demonstrations of proficient workmanship. "I learned how to play a role, be a good teammate," he said after his Game 3 burst, explaining his longevity. The durability was legacy enough. "Not bad for a second-round pick in '81," he said.

Who knew that there were more heroics to come on Sunday? With Elie in foul trouble, Johnson again got a lot of playing time, but he made just one field goal in 24 minutes before sinking the game-winner. As usual, Olajuwon was keeping the Rockets in the game, scoring 27 points by using his spinning Dream Shakes around the basket and continually beating Utah's overmatched Gregs, Ostertag and Foster.

But John Stockton, the Jazz's All-Star point guard, was his usual brilliant self, scoring 22, and Malone added his typical 22, including a jumper that tied the game at 92 with 1:08 left. Utah got possession again with 51.9 remaining but couldn't score, leaving Houston just 6.7 seconds and a transparent plan.

Of course, the ball would go to Olajuwon down low, where he'd get his usual short shot or draw a foul. But since Utah was well aware of that option, it couldn't happen. The next possibility was for Drexler to try to get himself open on the outside. The Jazz had thought of that, too. Drexler, aggressively double-teamed, had all he could do to get the ball off to rookie point guard Matt Maloney, who kicked the ball to Johnson, standing all alone near the top of the three-point are. He never hesitated.

"Maybe halfway through the shot," Johnson said afterward, "I thought, Maybe that baby will go in. After that, things got blurry."

The celebration was wild, with Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich running onto the court even before the ball was through the net. It was hard to appreciate what had just happened. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan criticized his team for giving up an "easy shot." Easy, from 27 feet? "For him," said Sloan. Others were more charitable. "I'm not saying Eddie's a dinosaur fossil," said Drexler, "but close. I'll say this: He's kept that shot oiled and greased all those years."

Until Johnson found his Grecian Formula, the series had been extremely un-heroic. The Jazz's two wins in Utah—101-86 on May 19 and 104-92 two nights later—were blowouts; there had been nothing for Houston to do but complain. The Rockets decided that Stockton, at 6'1" the smallest player on either team, was setting illegal (and unpenalized) moving picks and was, moreover, the Antichrist. Charges were flung, and films were sent to the league to plead the Rockets' case. "They're a dirty team," said Olajuwon. "They want to appear like they're good guys, but they're not. They're bad guys."

Part of Stockton's problem was that Utah was winning, he was averaging 21.0 points per night, and he was setting unyielding picks. Films showed him holding his own with Olajuwon and others, giving up his body in the most amazing ways. The big guys didn't appreciate that.

In fact, Barkley floored Stockton a few times in Game 2, once flagrantly, to send a message. "Obviously the refs aren't doing their job," Barkley said, "because I was trying to separate his shoulder or break a rib." Laughter from others. "I'm being serious."

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