Game 7: The Moment
It might’ve started off with some comments made by Kenny Smith about the Suns’ situation, but history had the Suns winning. Prior to that point, the last time a Game 7 had been won by the road team was Philadelphia against Boston in 1982. And from the start, Phoenix wanted to make sure it stayed that way. Elie, who started the game on the bench in favor of Pete Chilcutt, could only watch as Phoenix took a 26-13 lead after the first quarter. It appeared that the Suns were back to their strength and in 36 minutes, they would head on to play San Antonio in the conference finals.
But, the Rockets would have another surprise in store. They won the second quarter, but only barely as they cut the lead to 51-41 at halftime. Houston then dominated the third quarter by outscoring the Suns 40-28 keyed by contributions fro Chilcutt, Drexler, and Sam Cassell. The Rockets led 81-79 through three quarters setting up the fourth and final quarter.
As each team battled through the tight fourth quarter, one major player that was having an impact on the game was Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson. Johnson would be the star of the game as he would finish with a game-high 46 points. This would include a playoff record 21 free throws, including a pair that gave Phoenix a 109-108 lead. Houston got the ball back and Smith would make a pair of free throws of his own to put Houston back up 110-109. Then, the Rockets committed a critical mistake and fouled Johnson.
Johnson tied the game with the first free throw. But then, he missed the second for his first and only miss from the charity stripe. This miss would play a factor in the result of the game. Either way, the Rockets got the rebound and called a timeout tied at 110 with twenty seconds.
So here was the situation. A tie score in Game 7 and an opportunity to seize the victory. A chance for the Rockets to complete a historic comeback and put an end to another golden dream for Phoenix perhaps for good. Who was going to take the shot? Olajuwon had 29 points to lead the team along with Drexler. Robert Horry only had five points while Smith had 10. Elie was the fifth man on the floor. So, who’s getting the ball here?
In the play, you had a double team on Kenny Smith. Instead of being forced to throw a cross-court pass possibly to a Suns’ player, Smith makes the short pass to Horry. When Horry gets the ball, three Suns (Ainge, Barkley, and Majerle) are converging towards him while Johnson is covering Smith. Drexler, who is also on the floor attempts to help both Smith and Horry when they both face trouble. But, his help isn’t needed.
There is one Sun in Danny Schayes, who has the task of guarding Olajuwon. Think of it. Three Suns converging on Horry. A fourth Sun still guarding Smith and a fifth Sun guarding Hakeem. Yet, suddenly, Horry throws a cross-court pass to the left side of the court. The ball is sailing out of bounds. But, if you look closely, who is wide open and unguarded in front of Houston’s bench? Why that’s Elie. How did he get there?
A simple mistake. Ainge just let him by because he was focused on the double-team. Elie just got by unscathed and now, he has the ball. As he catches the sailing pass, there’s one second of pause. Elie is getting set while Schayes, who has one arm on Hakeem afraid to leave him, watches with a surprised look. Elie then takes a shot before Schayes could get there.
It was magical. The celebration afterward from the bench. The excitement of hitting the game-
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winner. Then, the reaction of Elie who had the ultimate taunt. All if took was two fingers on the lips and the blow. Good night sweetheart. You’re done.
But yet, the game wasn’t over. There were still seven seconds left. The Suns could still tie the game. Houston made the right move by fouling Phoenix. Majerle made two free throws while Drexler converted free throws of his own and Houston led 115-112. Then, Ainge got fouled and he made the first free throw. With two seconds left, Ainge had no choice but to miss the second free throw and hope to get a shot to tie the game and play overtime. Instead, he made the second free throw on accident to trail by one.
Houston then got the ball and Horry through a bad inbounds pass. Ainge stole the ball and launched a desperate half-court heave. But the ball bounced off the backboard and right into Olajuwon’s hands to seal the win. Even with all the late dramatics in the final seconds, it seemed like Elie’s three did the trick.
This shot is the best shot in franchise history for the following reasons.
- It propelled the Rockets to their second straight NBA championship, which would require more clutch heroics against the Spurs and Magic.
- It later brought him into the starting lineup for the NBA Finals.
- It completed an epic comeback.
- It was a reminder of why the Rockets weren’t to be taken lightly even if they were the defending champions.
- It ended an era of potential greatness for the Suns as they were never able to grab a championship.
- It was taken by a man who showed true grit, resiliency, heart, and determination to get to where he was in his career.
Mario Elie may be among the top ten greatest Rocket players ever. He may have won three NBA championships as he would later add on with the Spurs in 1999. He may have had a stint with the Suns to end his NBA career. He may have had the honor of playing with Hall-of-Famers in Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon.
But let’s be real here. Wherever Mario Elie goes throughout his time, he will not be the Junkyard Dog. He will be known as the Kiss of Death because of the shot. For that, we salute you, Mario Elie, with a traditional Kiss of Death.
Now can we please start building statues around Toyota Center to honor this shot?