Knicks Find the Heart to Reach Finals
The team that lost its best player and the coach who nearly lost his job won the NBA Eastern Conference championship Friday because it never lost hope.
The New York Knicks rode a 32-point performance by Allan Houston to a 90-82 victory over the Indiana Pacers before a roaring crowd of 19,765 at Madison Square Garden, becoming the first eighth-seeded team in NBA history to advance to the finals since the current playoff format was adopted in 1984. Although Larry Johnson joined Patrick Ewing on the sidelines when he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the second quarter, the Knicks broke away from the Pacers with an impressive, sure-shooting fourth quarter to win the series in six games and earn their first trip to the finals since 1994.
“This was not about coaching. This was about great, great play by a team that has developed itself into a true team that fought hard and played just to win,” said Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who came close to being fired toward the end of a 27-23 season and has not been assured he will return next season. “I’m really happy they were rewarded with this win.”
The Knicks will face the San Antonio Spurs for the NBA title starting Wednesday at the Alamodome. If they face long odds against the Spurs, they’re not daunted. What were the odds, after the regular season, that they would even be where they were Friday?
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Marcus Camby, who was foisted upon an unwilling Van Gundy in a trade for Charles Oakley and was ignored for stretches--yet in the end did much to probably save Van Gundy’s job. “Especially after being buried for two years in Toronto, not making the playoffs, I’m so excited.”
Van Gundy rejected suggestions the triumph was vindication for him, yet it’s impossible to avoid that conclusion. The crowd, in chanting his full name rhythmically at the end of the game, certainly credited him as much as it credited Houston, or Camby, who proved to be a catalyst in the series and contributed 15 points Friday, or Latrell Sprewell, who had 20 points. Players encouraged the cheers by waving toward the stands--and even Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts, who fired General Manager Ernie Grunfeld late in the season and met with Phil Jackson about the coaching job behind Van Gundy’s back, said he joined the cheers.
Checketts, however, didn’t take the extra step of guaranteeing Van Gundy will be back, saying only, “Of course,” when asked if the team’s triumph would help Van Gundy’s employment prospects.
But for Van Gundy, a workaholic who comes honestly by the dark circles under his eyes, credit and endorsements weren’t necessary Friday.
“It’s not about me, but it’s sweet for the team and the organization,” said Van Gundy, who did accept an Eastern Conference champions hat from Houston but, he said, only to cover his bald spot. “I’m very proud of our guys, how they kept fighting for this game and basically all year.”
They fought through the daily battles of working Camby and Sprewell into their offense, all the while fighting to crawl into the playoffs.
“Any time you add players, especially the caliber of Marcus and Latrell, it’s an adjustment,” Houston said. “These guys are not role players, they’re star players. I don’t think you can expect things to just come out like they’re doing now, in a short period of time. It amazes me that we’re here because even with the short season, we were still able to get where we are. . . .
“My mother always said what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that’s what happened in the playoffs.”
Reggie Miller, who hit only three of 18 shots, blamed himself for killing the Pacers’ playoff hopes. The loss was Indiana’s second in the East finals in two years.
“I lost the game for us, our franchise, our state. I’ve got to accept the blame,” Miller said. “I did not make the shots I was supposed to.”
His poor shooting night wasn’t the only reason for the elimination of the Pacers, who had been seeded second in the East.
“I’m very disappointed in the way we played in this series,” Coach Larry Bird said. “It seemed like we always had three guys that played well each game. We never got the five guys we needed to win a ballgame.”
In a game of surges in a series of surges, the Knicks took control in the third quarter Friday after Indiana went on an 11-0 run that erased the Knicks’ 41-35 halftime lead. Determined to win the game for Johnson--Chris Childs even made the ‘L’ arm gesture Johnson had been making after scoring a basket--they pulled even by the end of the half and became more aggressive as the Pacers got into foul trouble.
Afterward, Checketts said the team doctor told him Johnson might play Wednesday.
Sprewell scored a team-high 10 points in the fourth to let the Knicks pull away. “There’s nothing to say,” Sprewell said, “except this is what we play for. This is what you sit up and you watch on TV. . . . You always hope to be in this position. To actually be going through it and experiencing it is a feeling I’ve never felt before. I love it.”
SAN ANTONIO vs. NEW YORK
Best of seven
GAME 1: Wednesday at San Antonio, 6 p.m.
GAME 2: Friday at San Antonio, 6 p.m.
GAME 3: June 21 at New York, 6 p.m.
GAME 4: June 23 at New York, 6 p.m.
GAME 5 *: June 25 at New York, 6 p.m.
GAME 6 *: June 27 at San Antonio, 4:30 p.m.
GAME 7 *: June 29 at San Antonio, 6 p.m.
Games on Channel 4
* If necessary