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Rockets Are No Longer a Longshot

NBA playoffs: Johnson's 27-foot three-point basket at buzzer gives Houston a 95-92 victory over Utah and ties series, 2-2.

May 26, 1997|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Which Rocket did you say is called Dream?

Having had his--and a city's--come true, it's now Eddie Johnson, owner of the fantasy run of these playoffs at the very least and the man in the center of that human barricade designed to make sure no one pinches him awake from this one for a while. Say, another couple weeks.

He may have been the hero on Friday with 31 points, but Sunday was about history. A quick-release, high-arcing, straight-away 27-foot three-point basket at the buzzer that lifted the Rockets to a 95-92 victory over the Utah Jazz at the Summit and into a 2-2 tie in the suddenly competitive Western Conference finals.

"It's gigantic," said Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, part of the organization since 1970. "In the history of Rockets' basketball, it's right up there."

At the very least, it's their biggest shot since Mario Elie's last-second three-point basket in Game 7 of the 1995 conference semifinals at Phoenix. That was more dramatic because it was for the series, keeping the Rockets alive for what became a second consecutive NBA title, and because it came without the safety net of Sunday, when a miss would merely have meant overtime, not elimination.

This isn't bad for a second-best-of-the-decade, though. A loss in overtime would have put the Rockets in a 3-1 hole and needing to win the next three games, two of which are at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

The comfort is that they are at least guaranteed a return trip to the Summit for Game 6 on Friday, after trying Tuesday to become the only visiting team to win twice this season in Salt Lake City. All because of Johnson, the 38-year-old swingman signed as a free agent in March. It was his third stop of 1996-97, and he is living in a hotel. At least he was until Sunday.

"By far the biggest shot I've ever hit," he said.

That it came on blown defensive coverage made it all the more painful for the Jazz. Johnson, who has lasted into his 15th season because of outside shooting, had made five three-point shots in Game 3 and opened Game 4 with another. On the final shot, he was left alone because Jeff Hornacek went to double-team Clyde Drexler on the left wing.

"I mean, how can you go out and double team and leave him alone?" Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan wondered, openly criticizing Hornacek's decision. "That's beyond my imagination."

Said Tomjanovich: "I would have played it straight up."

But Hornacek didn't. When play resumed after a Rocket timeout with 6.7 seconds left in a 92-92 game, he instead chose to cut over to help Bryon Russell on Drexler, hoping that would either deny the entry pass to Olajuwon on the post or burn the final moments of regulation. But when Drexler threw the ball back toward the middle, to Matt Maloney, the Jazz were immediately exposed.

Maloney, defended by John Stockton, caught the pass with only a few seconds remaining, then quickly passed it to Johnson on his right. He was open. Hornacek, trying to catch up, came flying in from the left, arm extended. Karl Malone left Charles Barkley and started running straight at Johnson.

"He didn't get the ball with much time, but that's why he got the name Fast Eddie," Tomjanovich said.

For the fast release.

"I had my feet set," Johnson said. "I knew if I got it, I could get it off."

He got the ball. He got it off.

"I knew it had a chance," he said.

By the time the ball was arcing toward the basket, that had been upgraded to a very good chance.

"After that," he said, "it's blurry."

Really blurry.

"It seems like that ball was in the air forever," Barkley said.

Until it swished.

"Utah played great defense," Drexler said, "except they left Eddie open and he hit the shot."

Except for that.

Johnson, having made his second shot in five attempts, turned and ran to the other end of the court with both arms raised, to be mobbed by fans and teammates and surrounded by cameras capturing the moment. Tomjanovich punched his right fist in the air and sprinted off to the tunnel off midcourt that leads to the locker room. The crowd erupted.

"It was so loud," said Barkley, who had 20 points and 16 rebounds. "When it went through, it was surreal. I'm not sure what surreal means, but I heard somebody use it on TV once and they sounded pretty damn smart. It was surreal."

More than that, the series that had opened with consecutive Jazz victories and the Rockets unable to shoot better than 38% was tied. Surreal was Malone, after saying the day before he needed more than the 14 shots that came in Game 3, getting 28 this time, but making only eight. Or Hornacek, a reliable player, committing the major error in judgment.

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