On this day in NBA Finals history: Orlando’s Nick Anderson misses four straight free throws in the clutch
Game 1 of the 1995 Finals slipped away from the Magic after Anderson’s late blunder
There’s no way those free throws don’t still haunt Nick Anderson.
Anderson and the Orlando Magic were as in control as a team could hope for late in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 7, 1995. The Magic led the then-defending NBA champion Houston Rockets, 110-107, with 8.5 seconds left after a foul by Robert Horry that sent Anderson to the free throw line. One make and the game, barring any miracles, would be over.
Anderson, a 70.4 percent foul shooter during the 1994-95 regular season, toed the line.
Attempt No. 1 — Miss, short of the front of the rim, prompting Anderson to quickly spin around and walk into the backcourt in playful frustration. When he returned to the stripe, he clapped his hands and pounded his chest before resetting for his second try.
Attempt No. 2 — Miss, short again, but Anderson grabbed his own rebound and drew another foul, this time on Clyde Drexler, which sent him back to the line for two more shots with 7.9 seconds on the clock. The crowd at Orlando Arena went nuts while Anderson sat on the hardwood and hyped himself up.
Attempt No. 3 — “Another miss by Nick Anderson!” analyst Matt Guokas exclaimed on the broadcast. This time the shot was long, bouncing high off the back rim. A third miss cranked the pressure up a notch on Anderson, turning his final attempt into a must-make. He couldn’t possibly miss four free throws in a row, everybody and they mama watching the game had to be thinking.
Attempt No. 4 — Yet another miss, off the back iron again, after he rushed his pre-shot routine. Houston grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 5.6 seconds left. On the next possession, Kenny Smith came up with a clutch 3-pointer for the Rockets that knotted the score at 110 and ultimately sent the game into overtime. Despite leading by as much as 20 and possessing a lead with seconds remaining in regulation, the Magic dropped Game 1 to the Rockets, 120-118.
It was easy to point the finger at Anderson, the first player to be drafted in the history of the franchise, who missed four consecutive free throws with the game on the line in the Orlando Magic’s first Finals game.
“I’ve been in that type of situation before and pulled through it,” Anderson told The New York Times after the game. “I like to be in that situation. It just happened. And I say to myself, ‘Why did it have happen now?’ ”
Orlando never recovered from the Game 1 loss, dropping the series to Houston in a four-game sweep. The devastating ending to the series opener also took a lasting toll on Anderson for the rest of his career when it came to shooting free throws. Over the next six seasons, Anderson’s free throw percentage never rose above 63.8 (1996-97), including during the 2000-01 season, in which he played 21 games for the Sacramento Kings without attempting a single free throw.
“I made it. I’m not afraid. I’m not ashamed. I used to be — I admit to that. I fought with it for a long time. I struggled with it,” Anderson, who’s now a community ambassador for the Magic, told the Orlando Sentinel in 2015, which marked the 20th anniversary of that infamous Game 1.
It’s hard to imagine that Anderson doesn’t wish he could have at least one of those four free throws from 22 years ago back. One made foul shot could’ve won the game, and perhaps changed the shape of the entire series. But Anderson couldn’t get any of his chances to fall. Because, as Guokas said on the broadcast that night, the free throw line “is where the mind really starts to play tricks.”