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Knicks Head to Houston Ahead : NBA finals: Starks, Ewing spark fourth-quarter surge for 91-84 victory and 3-2 edge in series.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

What could the New York Knicks have been thinking?

What could have provoked them into such a costly mistake?

Didn’t anyone tell them what this means?

That 91-84 victory over the Houston Rockets on Friday night before 19,763 at Madison Square Garden means they are in control, leading the NBA finals, three games to two, and heading back to Texas needing one victory Sunday or, if necessary, Wednesday to win the title.

This is terrible for the Knicks. They openly talk of thriving on the danger of impending doom, whether almost blowing a 2-0 start against the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals or facing a 12-point second-half deficit in Game 7 the next round against the Indiana Pacers. Now comes trouble. Playing from a position of strength.

It’s their own fault, though. The Knicks created the predicament by recovering from a 22-5 run that allowed the Rockets to turn a 56-43 deficit midway through the third quarter into a 65-61 lead early in the fourth, then claiming the victory with a combination of increased defensive intensity and John Starks. At least that part of the recipe held true.

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Starks, who scored 11 of his 19 points in the final quarter, warmed up by tossing in a short jumper that brought New York within 79-78 with 4:09 left. Then, after a Rocket free throw by Vernon Maxwell, Starks’ three-pointer from the right side gave the Knicks a lead they would never relinquish, 81-80. Maxwell was nearby, but it was proved again this is the only way Houston guards can stay close to their counterparts, Starks and Derek Harper again dominating Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell.

But the Starks shot was good for more than the lead. It knocked the Rockets back on their heels and sparked the Knicks for the final push.

“It definitely was a big shot for them,” Maxwell said. “He’s done that all year for them. He did it in Game 4, the same shot and the same spot. That hurt us a lot. It gave them a lot of momentum and took a lot of momentum away from us.”

Said Starks: “Definitely. I told everybody after I hit the shot, ‘Get down. Let’s get aggressive on defense.’ ”

The Knicks listened.

The Rockets closed with another in what has become a string of miserable fourth quarters, making only nine of 24 shots (37.5%) those 12 minutes. That included a string of 10 consecutive misses before a meaningless three-pointer by Hakeem Olajuwon with 22 seconds left, the last of his game-high 27 points that were tempered by eight turnovers and only eight rebounds in 40 minutes.

“We were finding the open man (to stop),” New York’s Anthony Mason said. “It was a desperation thing for us on defense like it was for them on offense. It worked out in our favor.”

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Partly because the Knicks, in position for their first championship since beating the Lakers in 1973, had also hit their stride on offense. Harper made two free throws, part of his 14 points. A fast break off a missed Rocket three-pointer resulted in a dunk for Mason. Starks drove right at Olajwuon under the basket and missed the layup, but got to the line and converted both chances. That made it 87-81 with 57 seconds left, and the Rockets never recovered.

Patrick Ewing was a big reason why--finally. He came in shooting only 33.3% and averaging 18.3 points in the first three games, the latter a little more than six points off his regular-season output. He had missed 20 shots in each of the last two games, but he broke out to get 25 points Friday while making 11 of 21 attempts. He also had 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots. All were team highs, and the blocks tied the finals record shared by Olajuwon and Bill Walton.

“I just knew I was in for a big game,” Ewing said. “I knew my shot was going to start falling. I wasn’t going to give up. I kept believing in myself and believing in my game. That’s all I did.”

It was enough.

“We knew sooner or later Patrick would come around and get his game going, offensively and defensively,” Starks said. “He had eight blocked shots. We have to jump on the Big Fella’s back sometime and just let him carry us.”

Maybe all the way to Houston and what lies beyond.

NBA Finals

SERIES AT A GLANCE

N.Y. Knicks vs. Houston Rockets

Results

Game 1: Houston 85, N.Y. 78

Game 2: N.Y. 91, Houston 83

Game 3: Houston 93, N.Y. 89

Game 4: N.Y. 91, Houston 82

Game 5: N.Y. 91, Houston 84

Schedule

Day: Sun.

Site: at Houston

Time: 4 p.m.

*

Day: *Wed.

Site: at Houston

Time: 6 p.m.

*If necessary

* THE NBA / MARK HEISLER: The players aren’t even close, but the 1994 Knicks resemble the 1988 Lakers in at least one way. Their coach, Pat Riley, won’t let them lose. C16.

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