Wishes come true for Knicks, Pacers

Today, rivals begin Eastern Conference finals

May 30, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It started Monday night in the third quarter at Madison Square Garden, and it didn't take long to pick up steam. As the New York Knicks were clinching their Eastern Conference semifinal series over the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA playoffs, the fans in the cheap seats were making their wishes known: "We want Reggie. We want Reggie "

Asked about the chant by Indiana reporters the next day, Reggie Miller responded: "Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for."

That's kind of funny, because the previous day Miller said he wanted the Knicks, as his Indiana Pacers completed their second-round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers. Both sides will get what they asked for starting today, when the Pacers play host to the Knicks in the first game of the Eastern Conference finals.

While it may appear the Knicks and the Pacers have had a long playoff rivalry, all four of their postseason meetings have occurred over the previous six years. Each team has won two series, providing many memorable moments,such as:

Miller's eight-points-in-16-seconds outburst in the opening-game win by Indiana in 1995.

Miller's three-pointer at the end of regulation of last year's Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, sending the game into overtime and turning the series.

Patrick Ewing's four steps on the way to missing a potentially game-tying, finger-roll layup that preserved Indiana's 97-95 win in Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.

A month ago, the pairing of New York and Indiana in the conference finals would have seemed unlikely. The Knicks were a team in chaos, at one point with a 21-21 record and at risk of missing the playoffs (New York had fallen to as low as 10th in the Eastern Conference). General manager Ernie Grunfeld was reassigned, and team president Dave Checketts sought a meeting with former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson -- a sign that coach Jeff Van Gundy's job was in danger.

Even with wins in six of their last eight games of the regular season, a long run through the postseason wasn't considered likely for a New York team that entered the playoffs as an eighth seed. A first-round win over Miami in five games marked the second time in league history a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 seed. A four-game sweep of Atlanta was the first time a No. 8 got past the second round.

"Anyone who questions whether the Knicks deserve to be here is crazy, because they've been playing as well as anybody in the last two weeks," Pacers coach Larry Bird told reporters in Indiana on Wednesday. "I would think that if you've seen them, you know how good they are. And that's very, very good."

And it's good that New York point guards Chris Childs and Charlie Ward are doing a better job taking care of the basketball. During the regular season, the two combined for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1-to-1 (464 assists to 216 turnovers). In the postseason, that ratio has increased to 2.95-to-1, with 68 assists and 23 turnovers.

A big key to New York's success has been Ewing's acceptance of a lesser role offensively. Long the Knicks' leading scorer, Ewing is third on the team in scoring during the postseason (13.1 points a game), taking 12.87 shots a game. In playoff games going into this season, Ewing had averaged 22.2 points on 18.3 shot attempts.

"I think he realized at this point, we're all going to do it together," Allan Houston told reporters in New York after a practice last week.

"I don't know if it was hard for him. All I know is, he does trust his teammates. I think that makes all the difference."

Whether all that trust, offensive balance and improved play is enough to beat a team that before the season was favored to go to the NBA finals remains to be seen.

"This is the third time I've faced them in the playoffs," Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, a former Rookie of the Year with the Knicks, said after his team's practice on Wednesday. "And all they are now is an impediment on our way to our ultimate goal."

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