SALT LAKE CITY — It happened 20 years ago, May 29, 1997, and it still might be the biggest moment in Utah Jazz history — John Stockton hitting the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Houston and move the Jazz to their first NBA Finals.
Everyone knows about Stockton receiving the pass from Bryon Russell with 2.8 seconds left and letting fly with his shot from 26 feet as Charles Barkley came over with his hands raised in an effort to block the shot, which swished through the hoop as time expired.
Then came Stockton’s exuberant leap in the air before he was mobbed by Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek and the rest of his Jazz teammates as they realized they were going to the NBA Finals.
What might be forgotten are a couple of key facts surrounding Stockton’s momentous shot.
For one, it came in Game 6 of the playoffs, not Game 7, meaning the Jazz weren’t on the brink of elimination and could have afforded to lose the game in overtime and go back to Salt Lake City for a chance to close out the series at home.
Another fact often lost in the shuffle of Stockton’s last-second heroics was the amazing comeback the Jazz had to make during the last three minutes to give Stockton a chance for his heroics. Utah had trailed by 10 points with 2:59 left but went on a 17-4 run the rest of the way as Stockton made the last three baskets of the game for Utah.
Stockton’s shot also overshadowed what transpired previously in the series against a talented Rockets team featuring three future Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Barkley.
Other highlights from the series included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Houston’s Eddie Johnson in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2, the Rockets whining about Stockton’s “illegal” screens after the first two games, and the many colorful comments of Barkley in advance of his future career as an NBA analyst on TV.
Here’s a look at each of the six playoff games in the Utah-Houston series:
Game 1: May 19, Delta Center
Jazz 101, Rockets 86
| Associated Press
The Jazz were coming off a five-game series win over the Lakers while the Rockets were coming off a grueling seven-game series with Seattle that finished two days earlier.
And it showed.
After falling behind early, the Jazz took a nine-point halftime lead, thanks to the play of the reserves and a 35-foot bank shot at the buzzer. The Jazz kept a steady lead in the second half and their two stars, Karl Malone and John Stockton, both finished with double-doubles as Malone had 21 points and 13 rebounds, while Stockton finished with 16 points and 13 assists.
“This was obviously a very frustrating night for us,” said Charles Barkley, who also refused to use fatigue as an excuse.
“If you’re tired, go home,” he said. “Get the (bleep) on the next bus tomorrow. We’re not going to make excuses.”
Game 2: May 21, Delta Center
Jazz 104, Rockets 92
Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich | Associated Press
This game was more about rough play, the Rockets complaining about the way the Jazz played in Game 1 and then going out in Game 2 and trying to do something about it.
After the first game, the Rockets had complained about some of the picks or screens, particularly those by Stockton, calling them illegal. They talked about it before the game with coach Rudy Tomjanovich sending his captains to discuss it with the officials. Afterward, Barkley even admitted to trying to hurt Stockton, saying, “Obviously the refs aren’t going to do their job, so I was trying to separate a shoulder or break a rib,” and then added that he was “serious.”
The Jazz seemed to take it all in stride as they led the entire way and outrebounded the Rockets 56-37. Stockton had one of his better games of the postseason, finishing with 26 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
Game 3: May 23, The Summit
Rockets 118, Jazz 100
Kevin Willis | Associated Press
Known as a Jazz-killer for his big games years earlier as a member of the Phoenix Suns, Eddie Johnson came off the bench to burn the Jazz with a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including 5 of 8 from 3-point range.
Johnson was so open that Jeff Hornacek quipped, “He could have reached over and taken a drink of Coke before some of those shots.”
Utah actually jumped out to a 31-18 lead after one quarter, but the Rockets dominated the second and tied the game at halftime 51-51. Houston pushed the lead to 12 in the third quarter, but the Jazz made one last rally to pull within five midway through the fourth quarter before the Rockets pulled away.
Game 4: May 25, The Summit
Rockets 95, Jazz 92
Eddie Johnson | Associated Press
Once again Johnson came up big for the Rockets, sinking what he called, “the biggest shot I’ve ever hit” to give the Rockets the series-tying victory.
Johnson barely beat the final buzzer with a high-arcing 3-pointer from 25 feet to give Houston the dramatic victory. Besides Johnson, the Rockets' big three of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Barkley were solid with 27, 20 and 16 points, respectively.
The Jazz got 22 apiece from Stockton and Malone, but while Stockton sank 9 of 12 shots, Malone managed to hit just 10 of 28.
Utah had a great chance to take the lead in the final minute but Stockton missed an open 16-footer, Greg Foster had two tip-in attempts and then Bryon Russell missed a 3-point attempt, the latter with under 10 seconds to play.
Game 5: May 27, Delta Center
Jazz 96, Rockets 91
Charles Barkley tries to drive on Karl Malone | Associated Press
After being fairly quiet during the first four games of the series, Malone came up big in this one, showing why he was the regular-season MVP.
Malone finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds as he slightly overshadowed Olajuwon, who finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson, the Rockets' hero the two previous games in Houston, was held to just 2-of-7 shooting.
The Jazz were never able to break the game open, leading by three after the first and second quarters and by seven after three quarters before winning by five.
"This is the one game we played to win, and not to not lose,'' said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "We had a lot of people play awfully hard and with a great deal of intensity.''
Game 6: May 29, The Summit
Jazz 103, Rockets 100
Utah Jazz's John Stockton, right, walks off the court with teammate Karl Malone, center, and coach Jerry Sloan after beating the Houston Rockets 103-100 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston. | Associated Press
The home team had won each of the first five games of the series and it looked to be happening again when the Rockets took a 13-point lead in the final quarter and still led by 10 with just under three minutes remaining.
That’s when the Jazz rally started as Russell sank a 3-pointer and, after a Greg Ostertag block on Olajuwon, Stockton hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to five.
"Coach is always saying, "Never give up, never give up," Stockton said. "We were down ... and he convinced us to keep playing.''
After Barkley made two foul shots, Russell hit another 3-pointer, followed by a Stockton layup. Then Stockton stole the ball from Drexler and tied the game at 98 with 1:03 remaining. Barkley made two more free throws, but Stockton answered with a six-foot runner in the lane to tie it at 100. Drexler, who had scored 33 up to that point, tried to drive on Russell, but after being converged on by several Jazz players, he threw up a wild bank shot with six seconds left that Malone rebounded to give Utah one last chance. Jazz starters accounted for all but five points as Stockton led the way with 25, followed by Malone with 24, Hornacek with 18, Ostertag with 16 and Russell with 15.