NEW YORK -- After Indiana's win over the New York Knicks here Wednesday, Pacers coach Larry Brown said his team had to win at home Friday to clinch the Eastern Conference title.
No way, Brown said, could the Pacers possibly think about beating the Knicks twice in a row at Madison Square Garden.
But that difficult task confronts the Pacers after Friday's 98-91 loss to the Knicks at Market Square Arena.
The Knicks used their home-court advantage in the conference semifinals, when they defeated the Chicago Bulls in Game 7. Now New York looks to do the same thing to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.
"The ultimate game" is how New York coach Pat Riley described tonight's 7 o'clock contest. "We want to get to June 8 [when the Finals open with the Houston Rockets]."
Say what you will about the Knicks: their ugly style, their lack of real talent, their thuggish nature. But, on the verge of elimination and labeled chokers by the New York media, the Knicks went on the road in a hostile arena and -- statistically --came through with one of their best performances of the playoffs.
The team shot 51.7 percent from the field, recorded 17 steals and had a balanced scoring attack led by John Starks' 26 points (five of six from three-point range). It was enough to get the critics off their backs -- at least for a day.
"We may not be the prettiest team or the most skilled team," Riley said. "But the one thing . . . I can't understand is the questioning of their heart.
"This team is all about heart," he added. "This team has heart, and that's what got us here."
Judging by their comments, the Knicks seemed to have been fueled by the scathing criticism that followed the "Miller game" -- the Game 5 loss in which Reggie Miller scored 25 fourth-quarter points in the Pacers' come-from-behind win.
"What do we think when people question our heart? Who cares?" said Knicks guard Greg Anthony. "We just want to go in and play with this type of effort, this type of intensity."
While the criticism may have helped the Knicks focus, the carnival-like atmosphere that overtook Indianapolis may have hurt the Pacers.
Both papers had front-page stories on the games, and all the television stations devoted nearly their entire newscasts to the games. And with all the downtown partying and hysteria in which tens of thousands of people flocked downtown just to be in the vicinity in case the Pacers won, the pressure could have explained the team's slow start.
"Our offense in the first half was bad, and any time you let the Knicks shoot 57 percent in a half," said Pacers guard Vern Fleming, his voice trailing off. "I can't explain it. The series is won by teams doing the little things, getting loose shots, steals. What it takes to win is hard work."
And what it might take for the Pacers to win is another gargantuan effort from Miller, who scored 12 points in the fourth quarter Friday (he had 27 for the game on eight-of-21 shooting from the field). But how do you top possibly one of the greatest clutch fourth quarters ("an aberrational performance" is how Riley described it) in playoff history? Chances are it won't happen.
For the Pacers to win, they'll need Rik Smits, missing in action over the past two games, to show up. Smits scored 18 points in 27 minutes, but hit just seven of 19 shots and grabbed five rebounds. Also helpful would be some production from Dale Davis, who had three points and six rebounds in 33 minutes.
New York will have to avoid a collapse that nearly cost it Friday's game. The Pacers were able to tie the game at 91 after trailing by 11 early in the second quarter. Patrick Ewing, in an attempt to do too much, was stripped twice by Miller in the last three minutes -- plays the Pacers were unable to convert into points. Ewing, unable to establish any type of low-post position since the first two games, must realize that he can't try to win the game alone.
The Knicks are cocky.
"We have to go in, take it to them [tonight] and move on to the next series," Ewing said. "We made a statement to ourselves in the beginning of the year that we were going to be the first team on the court and the last team off the court."
But the cockiness also comes with caution. All the Knicks have to do is to take a look at Game 5.
"It's not over. It's 3-3," Harper said. "And the fact that they beat tTC us keeps us from being overconfident. We know what we'll have to do on Sunday, and we'll do it."