By completing one of the most improbable plays in basketball tonight, Larry Johnson brought the New York Knicks one step closer to an unexpected place in the NBA Finals.
Johnson made a three-point shot while being fouled by Antonio Davis, then swished the ensuing free throw with 5.7 seconds left to complete a rare -- and controversial -- four-point play that gave the Knicks a 92-91 victory over the Indiana Pacers and a two-games-to-one lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Pacers, who squandered an eight-point lead in the final 3 minutes 21 seconds, argued that Johnson had been fouled before shooting. But they could have made the issue moot. After a timeout, guard Mark Jackson's short, running jumper from the lane rimmed out. Time expired, and pandemonium reigned at Madison Square Garden, where Game 4 will be played Monday night.
New York players rushed Johnson, then center Patrick Ewing -- out for the remainder of the playoffs with a partially torn Achilles' tendon -- limped onto the court in a walking cast to congratulate him. Meanwhile, the sellout crowd of 19,763 chanted "Larry, Larry" for minutes after the final buzzer.
"The main thing about the win was not the shot at the end or the four-point play," said Johnson, who scored a game-high 26 points. "We hung around, hung around."
The eighth-seeded Knicks, who were eliminated from the playoffs by the Pacers last season, are just two victories from playing in their second NBA Finals this decade. They would be the first No. 8 seed to advance to the Finals.
Making this series even more riveting, the first three games have been decided by a total of six points. That prompted Johnson to warn: "This could be a great win and a great shot and we still could lose 4-2."
On the game's final possession, the Pacers tried to get the ball to guard Reggie Miller, who has a history of burying the Knicks in big games. But New York guard Allan Houston denied Miller the ball, just as he did for much of the game. Miller finished with just nine shots and 12 points -- none in the fourth quarter.
"I'm usually on the other side of a shot like that," Miller said, referring to Johnson's three-pointer. "He hit a tough shot. You put him in a position where they have to make a tough three or you foul them early so they are shooting free throws."
And therein stood the controversy.
The Pacers thought Davis fouled Johnson before Johnson launched his shot, an infraction that would have given Johnson two free throws -- only enough to potentially move the Knicks within one point. Video replays seemed to validate their point as no contact appeared to occur while Johnson was shooting.
"That was a bad call," Pacers Coach Larry Bird said. "But that's part of it."
Said Johnson: "I was in the act of shooting. He fouled me after I dribbled the ball, so it was a good call."
Things almost never got to that point, though.
After Jackson made two free throws to give Indiana a 91-88 lead with 11.9 seconds left, the Knicks called a timeout to set up an inbounds play from half court. When play resumed, guard Jalen Rose almost stole the ball. But Johnson corralled it, then made his move.
"It could have easily been a steal," Van Gundy said.
It also could have easily been a Pacers victory.
Rik Smits made two free throws with 3:21 seconds left to put Indiana ahead 89-81, a lead that seemingly would be enough for the veteran-laden Pacers.
But New York guard Chris Childs countered with a three-pointer, igniting a 7-0 run that ended with two free throws by forward Marcus Camby, who had 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Indiana missed three shots and Miller committed a turnover during the cold spell that opened the door for New York's comeback.
"We made a lot of mistakes and it cost us," Bird said.
Ewing's absence was apparent, as Smits had his best game of the series. After fouling out of the first two games and scoring a combined total of 19 points, Smits scored 15 of his 25 points today during a second-quarter stretch in which he rallied the Pacers from a seven-point deficit to a 40-40 tie.
But the Knicks outrebounded Indiana 40-31 and scored 18 second-chance points. New York also outscored the Pacers 50-26 in the lane, with many of those points coming from penetration from Latrell Sprewell and Camby.
CAPTION: Larry Johnson makes his point in the final seconds of Game 3 with a 4-point play that put the Knicks up 2-1 in Eastern Conference finals against Pacers.