The fourth quarter belongs to the New York Knicks.
This is fortunate for them, because their first three quarters are invariably up for grabs. The Chicago Bulls took it to them once more Wednesday night, but the Knicks got them again in the final quarter and won, 96-91, to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern semifinal series.
In Game 1, the Bulls led by 15 points in the third quarter but were upended the fourth.
In Game 2, the Bulls led by eight in the third quarter, but the Knicks hit them with a 27-19 fourth.
The Bulls are averaging 52 points in the first half, 37 in the second.
“You know, put it this way,” Bull forward Horace Grant said, “when you play a Charles Oakley for 10-12 minutes, then you come in with a Charles Smith for 5-8 minutes, then you come in with an Anthony Mason, I think that would wear anybody down. I don’t think Hulk Hogan wouldn’t be worn down.”
Mason, the best player Pat Riley ever put on indefinite suspension, came off the bench to score 15 points with 14 rebounds and six assists in 34 minutes. A 6-foot-7, 250-pound “small” forward, he was often matched against the taller, thinner Toni Kukoc, who needed a crash weightlifting course, or a bat.
“I guess our bench is going to have to match their bench,” Grant said. “That’s very difficult. No single player is going to stop Mason in the post. Toni is a little too weak to stop him in the post.”
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
After the Bulls almost stole Game 1, Riley put it down to the 48-hour turnaround from the Knicks’ first-round victory over New Jersey, hinting in addition his team had taken the Bulls lightly.
The Game 1 scare and two days of hard drilling on Chicago’s spread-out triangle offense were expected to cure that.
It didn’t. The Bulls spread them out again and Knick muscle was useless. By halftime, Grant, Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong were in double figures. John Starks missed four of his five shots, was assessed a technical foul after picking up his third personal and went to the bench fuming.
The third quarter followed the Game 1 script too. The Knicks regrouped at halftime, came back out . . . and fell further behind.
The Bulls went back up by eight. They were still ahead, 61-56, when Pippen drew his fourth foul with 4:50 left in the third quarter and had to come out.
The Knicks cut it to 72-69 after three quarters, then held the Bulls scoreless for the first 5:40 of the fourth.
The Bulls still led, 72-71, 2:39 into the period, the Knicks having neglected to score a field goal themselves. Then Starks, back in, cooled down and left alone on the right wing, hit a three-pointer to put New York ahead for the first time since the first quarter.
The next time down, Starks, on the left wing and covered this time, hit another three-pointer and the Bulls were all but officially finished.
Overall, Starks scored eight of his 13 points during an 11-0 run that made it 80-69.
Said Riley: “John threw a couple of daggers right at their heart.”
Said Bull Coach Phil Jackson: “Starks’ three-pointers were the difference in the ballgame. It was a wind-out-of-the-sails period of time when he came in and cast those two and they went down and the game changed dramatically.”
Said Starks: “That’s always been my forte since I came here. I can be one for five or one for 11 and I always think my next shot is going down.”
Patrick Ewing scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
“We just haven’t been able to handle the pressure down the stretch of the game,” said Pippen, who scored 22 points but missed 10 of 15 shots. “They’re definitely a much deeper team than we are. Any time we play three quarters with a team, we should be able to get it done.”
The series moves to Chicago for Games 3 and 4, as it did last spring. The Bulls went home and won four in a row a year ago. This time, however, the man who used to own the fourth quarter is playing baseball and the Knicks have a lean and hungry look.