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IT’S NOW DOWN TO 1 GAME

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Suddenly, the Houston Rockets went from the brink of defeat to being the favorites for their first NBA championship.

Hakeem Olajuwon's 30 points, his two big defensive plays in the final minute and Kenny Smith's clutch 3-pointer enabled the Rockets to escape the fourth-quarter heroics of New York's John Starks for an 86-84 victory Sunday night. The outcome tied the NBA Finals 3-3 and forced just the third final-round Game 7 since 1978."For the first time in franchise history, we're going into a seventh game with a chance to win a championship," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, referring to the team's two six-game losses in its previous trips to the NBA Finals.

The Knicks, although they never led in the second half and trailed by as many as 12 points, nearly won their first title since 1973. With Starks scoring 16 of the team's 22 points in the fourth quarter, New York got as close as 78-77 and pulled within two points four times in the final period.

"It's a very disheartening loss for us," Knicks coach Pat Riley said. "We had an opportunity, but they won it. Now it gets thrown up in the air in a seventh game."

But now that the Game 6 chance has passed, the Knicks, as the road team, face a daunting history in the seventh game Wednesday night. The home team has won the last 19 Game 7s since 1982, although just one of those 19 came in the NBA Finals, when the Los Angeles Lakers beat Detroit in 1988.

"This is what we worked all year for," Houston's Robert Horry said of the Game 7 homecourt advantage. "We knew it would be very important. Being familiar with your territory is what it's all about."

Game 7 nearly didn't happen for the Rockets because virtually everyone on the team except Olajuwon continues to struggle offensively. The regular-season Most Valuable Player scored his 30 points on 11-for-21 shooting, but no one else on the team had more than 12, and no other starter had more than 11.

Houston seemed to have the game well in hand with a 72-63 lead with 9:18 left. Then Starks, who finished with 27 points, took over.

The first of his three fourth-quarter 3-pointers, two free throws and a jumper made it 72-70, his second 3-pointer made it 78-77 and his third left Houston with an 84-82 edge with 1:17 remaining.

Starks' near-perfect period then took a turn for the worse when his pass intended for Patrick Ewing was stolen by Olajuwon, who was fouled and made two free throws for a four-point Houston lead with 39 seconds left.

Anthony Mason made it 86-84 with a baseline jumper seven seconds later, then rebounded a Houston miss with 7.6 seconds to go. After the Rockets committed a non-shooting foul with 5.5 seconds on the clock, Starks tried to win the title for the Knicks with one shot, but Olajuwon fought through a pick and got a piece of the ball, causing it to fall far short.

"I was just trying to get close to the ball," Olajuwon said of New York's last possession. "Starks is very dangerous out there. They tried the pick-and-roll and I got picked. I just tried to make him change his shot."

The two late miscues left Starks disconsolate, and he declined to discuss his game with the media. But his coaches and teammates knew it was Starks that was responsible for bringing New York so close to a championship.

"John carried us in the fourth quarter," Charles Oakley said. "We'll just have to give him more help in the next game."

"He has a big heart and you expect a guy with a heart like that to come through," Derek Harper said of his backcourt teammate. "But no one person loses the game. Without John Starks, we're not even in this situation. He struggled earlier in the series, but he's a champion."

An encouraging sign for the Rockets was Smith. Although he made just three of six shots and scored just seven points, that was a major improvement from his average of 4.2 points on 30 percent shooting in the series.

Smith's biggest moment came with 3:19 left when his 3-pointer game Houston an 84-77 lead. A coast-to-coast drive for a layup and a 3-pointer by Starks made it 84-82, but the 3-pointer by Smith was a tough blow.

"That was probably the biggest shot of his career," Tomjanovich said. "I was pulling for the guy so much when the ball was in the air."

For much of the series, Tomjanovich went with rookie Sam Cassell down the stretch instead of Smith. This time, he stuck with the veteran.

"All year Rudy has had confidence in me," Smith said. "He knows when to go with me and when not to."

Another important factor for the Rockets was the first-half play of reserve Carl Herrera, who scored 10 points in the second quarter to help Houston open a 46-36 halftime lead it never lost. Herrera finished with 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting.

Ewing had 17 points and 15 rebounds for the Knicks, but he missed 14 of 20 shots.