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NBA PLAYOFFS : Knicks Aren’t Only Ones With Backs to Wall

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Newsday

They are breathing more freely, the noose around their necks still there but not so tight. In fact, with the New York Knicks’ season-saving win in Game 5 Tuesday night, they have slipped the rope around the Chicago Bulls’ heads going into Game 6 Friday night in Chicago.

The Knicks, who trail the Eastern Conference semifinals 3-2, spoke with extreme conviction that they aren’t the only team in a must-win situation. The Bulls echoed the message.

“We have to win at home now,” Chicago guard Craig Hodges said. “We don’t want a seventh game in New York. That would not be to our advantage.”

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“The pressure’s on them to win at home now,” Trent Tucker said. “It’s a two-way street now. We lose and our season is over. They lose and they have to come back to the Garden for Game 7, which I’m sure they don’t want. So we’ll see what happens.”

What happened in Tuesday’s 121-114 victory was what the Knicks hope to achieve in Chicago, where they have not won in five games this season. The Knicks want to have perpetual motion on offense, with the ball mostly ending up in the hands of center Patrick Ewing. They want non-stop hustle and the same Air-tight defense that collapsed on Michael Jordan whenever he dribbled.

“We play like we did (Tuesday) and we’ll win,” said Ewing, who broke out of his playoff slump with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. “That’s the way we want to play, the way we should have been playing.”

While the Knicks re-established Ewing as an offensive force, the game still contained some elements that could spell doom if they resurface: turnovers and bad shots down the stretch.

The Knicks led 96-77 after a Rod Strickland basket at the start of the fourth quarter. But they reverted to the clumsy, selfish play they displayed in the pair of losses in Chicago.

And then, predictably, Jordan went into his act and the Knicks seemed to fold. Jordan had 18 of his 38 points in the final period, and his driving layup with 1:03 left pulled the Bulls to 112-109.

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All the while the flatfooted Knicks, except Ewing, were reduced to spectators. Ewing broke open the game when, in succession, he scored in the lane, blocked a Jordan jump shot and scored on a layup to give the Knicks a 116-109 lead with 33 seconds to go.

“That’s what Patrick is here for,” Gerald Wilkins said. “He’s the guy to step in and make the big plays. It’s obvious he was not on his game. But when we really needed him the most, he was there and ready.”

Ewing, who prefers simplicity, said, “I wanted to win.”

After some coaxing, he added, “Our season was on the line. I hadn’t been playing well, but I thought my talent would prevail. And all I want is to be known as a winner. So you do whatever it takes to win.”

If not for Ewing’s plays, the Knicks might have succumbed to Jordan’s theatrics. “It shows our character and our heart,” Mark Jackson said. “We have to do the same thing in Chicago to win. When they came back, we just stopped doing the things that got us the lead. Just for a moment. But a moment with Michael Jordan can seem like hours.”

The Knicks’ two-hour practice here Wednesday focused on continual ball movement, which helped the Knicks shoot 55%, place six players in double figures in scoring and account for their playoff-high 35 assists.

“We’ve got to play like that in Chicago to win,” Johnny Newman said. “When we spread the ball around like that and with Patrick going one-on-one inside, we’re a much better team.”

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