Knicks reach East pinnacle

N.Y. defeats Indiana, earns trip to Finals as 1st-ever 8th seed, 90-82

June 12, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- It was well past midnight, and the game had been over for nearly an hour. But thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden obviously wanted to savor the special moment. As they danced in the aisles waving their orange towels, Aretha Franklin's voice filled the arena with a song that for this night was extremely appropriate:

Respect.

A New York Knicks team that began the season with extremely high expectations nearly became a lottery team, just barely making the NBA playoffs. But last night the team made history, as the Knicks became the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals, clinching a spot with a 90-82 win over the Indiana Pacers before a sellout crowd.

New York advanced to its first NBA Finals since 1994, and may have to go against the San Antonio Spurs without two of its best big men.

Already without Patrick Ewing (partially torn left Achilles' tendon), the Knicks had to go for the most part last night without Larry Johnson, who midway through the second quarter suffered a sprained ligament in his right knee. Johnson had played the hero's role for the Knicks the entire series, providing the game-winning, four-point play in Game 3 here and hitting two big three-pointers in the final minutes of Wednesday's Game 5 win.

Even without Johnson, the Knicks -- a team known to at times struggle on offense -- connected on 10 of their 13 shots in the fourth quarter. As the final seconds ticked down and the with energy level in Madison Square Garden increasing, players skipped around the court in anticipation. At the buzzer New York guard Chris Childs heaved the ball high into the crowd on the south side of the arena.

"To run around the court, to see some of the fans and how happy they were -- this is really special," said New York guard Latrell Sprewell, who finished with 20 points -- 10 of those coming in the fourth quarter when he didn't miss a shot from the foul line or the field.

Allan Houston led the Knicks with 32 points, scoring nine in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting. And Marcus Camby came off the bench for another huge effort, providing 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.

Pacers guard Reggie Miller, who many times had destroyed the Knicks in the postseason, appeared to focus more on drawing fouls and flopping than he was on making shots. He finished with eight points, missing 15 of his 18 shots.

The Pacers' prime-time player appeared very ordinary in this series -- and every bit his 33 years.

"The other 11 guys, they really battled tonight," Miller said. "I lost this game for us, the franchise, the state.

"They rode my back the first two rounds, and they were looking to ride my back this round and I didn't do it for them," he added. "For me to come up so short in such a crucial part and at a crucial time, it's very difficult."

In fact, neither Miller nor Rik Smits ever got going in the series, although Smits did score a team-high 20 points for the Pacers last night before fouling out.

And others struggled: Chris Mullin had one point in 24 minutes, and Mark Jackson -- despite hitting six of eight shots -- had just four assists for the third time in the series.

"Obviously, I'm very disappointed the way we played in this series," said Indiana coach Larry Bird. "We had one good game here, six guys that played really well to win a ballgame. Other than that, we didn't have that many guys to step up and play."

And for a while the Knicks, with an opportunity to close out he series, didn't appear ready for the challenge. The Knicks started the game missing 12 of their first 13 shots and shot 21.7 percent in the first quarter. But coupled with Indiana's poor start, the Knicks trailed by just three, 17-14, at the end of the period.

Then Johnson went down with the knee injury with 6: 04 left in the second quarter, after getting hit by Pacers guard Travis Best. Johnson lay in pain for several minutes and had to be carried off the court. With Johnson out, the Knicks could have collapsed.

"We just knew that if LJ was out there, he would want us to play hard," Camby said.

And the Knicks rallied in the face of adversity, just as the team did when Patrick Ewing went down with a torn Achilles' after Game 2 in Indiana.

The result: an improbable run through the playoffs continues, with the Knicks facing the Spurs in the Finals, beginning Wednesday in the Alamodome.

It's a setting that no one could have imagined two months ago, which made the post-game celebration all the more special.

"More special than I thought it would be," Houston said. "It was 25 seconds to go and I'm just picturing how it was going to be after the game was over. I didn't even know we were still playing. I can't really describe the feeling right now."

NOTES: Coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose future with the team is still unknown, received a huge financial windfall. Getting to the Finals triggers a pay increase of $2.5 million for the 2000-2001 season, on top of the $1 million he's guaranteed to make The Pacers have now lost in the conference finals four times in the 1990s and have never reached the NBA Finals. San Antonio is playing the Finals for the first time.

NBA Finals

San Antonio vs. New York

(Best of seven)

Wednesday--at San Antonio, 9 p.m.

Friday--at San Antonio, 9 p.m.

June 21--at New York, 9 p.m.

June 23--at New York, 9 p.m.

June 25--at New York, 9 p.m.*

June 27--at San Antonio, 7: 30 p.m.*

June 29--at San Antonio, 9 p.m.*

*-if necessary

Pub Date: 6/13/99

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