Iconic Plays: Olajuwon's game-winning tip-in

Published December 24, 2021, 4:30 PMChuck Araneta

Hakeem Olajuwon won the game for the Houston Rockets with a putback late in OT in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic.

Photos from Getty Images | Artwork by Melvin Rodas

To commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary season, NBA.com Philippines launched Iconic Plays, a series that dives into special moments from the league’s 75-year history. So far, we've covered MJ's 'The Last Shot’, Kobe and Shaq's alley-oop, and Dr. J's reverse layup. In the fourth installment, Chuck Araneta revisits Hakeem Olajuwon's tip-in that gave the Houston Rockets a Game 1win in the 1995 NBA Finals.

The Setup

The Houston Rockets were never supposed to be the 1995 NBA champions. Hakeem Olajuwon and company were merely supposed to be footnotes in the ascension of a new superpower that was ready to stake their claim at the top of the mountain.

That was supposed to be the 1994-95  Orlando Magic team. When you take a glance at the Magic’s roster, it was staggering. You had Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway—the most dynamic, talented, and young duo in the NBA at the time. This version of Shaq wasn’t the Uncle Shaq that Charles Barkley roasts on TV - this was the backboard-shattering, poster-making, alley-oop smashing version of Shaq.

Penny Hardaway was also special. He was a big point guard in the mold of a Magic Johnson, yet had the athleticism and speed that Magic never had. He formed a devastating combo with Shaq, whether in transition or halfcourt sets. And what made them even more dangerous were the players that surrounded them. Guys like Brian Shaw, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, and Nick Anderson all played their roles perfectly, giving additional firepower when defenses were too locked in on the star duo.

The Magic ruled the Eastern Conference at the end of the 1994-95 regular season with a 57-25 record. Penny got an All-NBA First Team nod, while Shaq made the Second Team.

The Rockets, on the other hand, didn’t do as well. A year removed from winning the title in 1994, they barely made it into the playoffs as the sixth seed with a 47-35 record. Their season was saved because of a midseason trade, sending Otis Thorpe and a first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for superstar Clyde Drexler. Before the trade, the Rockets were 30-17 and were seemingly stuck in the mud. The move to get Drexler reinvigorated Houston to make a strong push for the postseason.

The road to the playoffs was different for both squads. The Magic hardly broke a sweat in the first two rounds, highlighted by a 4-2 semifinals win over Michael Jordan, who had just returned to the NBA, and the Chicago Bulls. (Who can forget Nick Anderson coming from behind to steal the ball from MJ to seal the victory and eventually win the series for the Magic.)

Though they were tested by Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic showed their resolve to barge into the NBA Finals.

The Rockets, meanwhile, had to scrape and claw to survive. It took everything they had to survive Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz in the first round, as well as Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in the second round. The two series went the distance—classic battles featuring Hall of Fame players from both teams going at it.

The West Conference Finals proved to be a showcase for Olajuwon, who was reportedly upset losing the Most Valuable Player award to San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson. In the series, Olajuwon absolutely dominated and overwhelmed Robinson, leading the Rockets to a 4-2 series win and their second straight trip to the finals. This time, against Shaq and Penny. 

The Magic dominated Game 1 early, going up by 20 points in the first half. But the Rockets slowly chipped away at the lead and came within three with 10.6 seconds remaining.

Then it happened: Nick Anderson went to the free throw line.

The Moment

If you were born in the 2000s or after, you probably haven’t heard of Anderson. After all, he’s never been an All-Star or had any individual awards to speak of in the NBA. But for Magic and ‘90s basketball fans, they know Anderson as a reliable veteran who provided toughness and was Orlando’s third option behind Shaq and Penny.

What happened to Anderson in Game 1, though, was so tough to watch. Because with seconds remaining in regulation and the Magic up by three points, Anderson was fouled and sent to the free throw line. He missed both free throws. After hitting the rim, the ball bounced off of Drexler and fell into Anderson’s hands. Anderson was fouled again, giving him two more tries to ice the game.

Anderson was at the time shooting around 67% from the free throw line. The percentages say that he would have at least hit one. There is absolutely no way that Nick Anderson could miss two more, right?

Well, that’s exactly what happened. In one of the most infamous moments in NBA Finals history, Anderson missed both free throws again, opening the door for the Rockets, who were able to force overtime behind a 3-pointer from Kenny Smith in the closing seconds.

In the extra period, Drexler and The Dream took control. The game was tied at 118-all after a clutch triple from Dennis Scott. But the Rockets had the ball with five seconds left. That was enough time for Drexler to get a running start, curl into the lane, and go up and extend with a gorgeous finger roll… that didn’t go in.

But Olajuwon was there. At the right place and at the right time. With one smooth motion, Olajuwon tipped the ball up, which glided in softly with 0.3 seconds left to give the Rockets the 120-118 win in Game 1.


The Degree of Difficulty

What made Olajuwon’s putback so incredibly iconic was how shocking it was at the time. Again, it can’t be overstated enough how favored the Magic were in this series. The NBA Finals was supposed to be a coronation.

But with one simple tip-in, the Rockets let everyone know that they weren’t the bridesmaids. The game-winner from Olajuwon burst the bubble of invincibility that the Magic were reveling in. The fact that it happened in Orlando just ramped up further how incredibly iconic, clutch, and gutsy Olajuwon’s game-winner was. 

The Aftermath

Where do we begin?

The Rockets won Game 1, then proceeded to win Game 2. Then Game 3. Then Game 4.

A shell-shocked, shaken, and self-doubting Magic team was unable to pick up the pieces after that Game 1 loss. All of a sudden the youth that everyone around them celebrated became their downfall. At the time, they were not yet emotionally equipped to weather the barrage of criticism, as well as the increased confidence of their opponents.

As a result, what was supposed to be the Magic’s first championship in franchise history turned into a sweep for the opponents.

The Magic tried to give it another go a season later, but it again ended with a sweep—at the hands of a vengeful Jordan and Chicago Bulls team.

In the offseason, Shaq bolted for the Los Angeles Lakers, signaling the end of the Magic’s window as a true title contender. Penny dealt with knee injuries that derailed his career and the Magic slipped into obscurity for years until Tracy McGrady arrived on the scene seasons later.

The Rockets, on the other hand, celebrated back-to-back titles, one of a handful of teams in NBA history to ever achieve that feat. The game-winner and his overall brilliance in the series cemented Olajuwon as one of the greatest centers in NBA history. 

Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich uttered one of the most memorable lines in sports after Houston’s Game 4 win: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

The Rockets truly earned the nickname “Clutch City” during that memorable 1995 playoff run. The Magic were never the same.