This was the game the Indiana Pacers expected to play. And this was the game the New York Knicks feared was coming.
This was also the game that restored some normalcy to the NBA Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers got a turn-back-the-clock performance from Chris Mullin and 19 points from Jalen Rose to defeat the Knicks, 90-78, tonight in Game 4 and interrupt New York's remarkable run through the playoffs. The best-of-seven series returns to Indianapolis for Game 5 on Wednesday tied at 2-2.
The Pacers had been unbeaten in the playoffs until the Knicks staged two improbable fourth-quarter comebacks against them. After Larry Johnson's four-point play won Game 3 on Saturday, Pacers Coach Larry Bird publicly challenged his players to get tougher.
And everything fell into place.
"They knew we let one slip away [on Saturday]," Bird said. "It was surprising to see them bounce back that well. We really took a hit. We came in very focused and played extremely well."
The Pacers did almost everything well, shooting 50 percent, getting a 41-30 rebounding edge and forcing 20 turnovers. Indiana center Rik Smits went to the bench with two fouls 30 seconds into the game, and Reggie Miller joined him midway through the first quarter. Nevertheless, the Pacers sprinted to a 13-point lead in the first half and answered every New York run in the second.
"You have to credit Indiana's resolve," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "A veteran team took a heartbreaking loss well. Smits and Miller got in immediate foul trouble, and they handled themselves very well."
Rose answered Bird's challenge by scoring 19 points. Another reserve, forward Antonio Davis, had also been criticized by Bird, and he, too, had a big game, scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Mullin, who will celebrate his 36th birthday next month, scored 18 points, and forward Dale Davis had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
The Pacers got contributions from so many players that they hardly missed Smits and Miller, who combined for 16 points. Until tonight, Smits had been Indiana's single unstoppable weapon, scoring easily against Patrick Ewing's replacements. Tonight, he had four points in 13 minutes.
Miller's shooting troubles continued as he made just 3 of 10 shots, including eight points in the final three minutes. But thanks to Rose and others, it hardly mattered.
"That shot in Game 3 could take the steam out of a team," said Miller, who was scoreless in the first half. "This team has been there. We've had our backs to the wall many a time, and we've always found a way to regroup. It left a bad taste in our mouth. We know we're the better team. If we'd let that taste stay in our mouth, we had no chance tonight."
Van Gundy seemingly had seen this one coming. He'd watched his team rally in the final seconds to win Games 1 and 3. When he looked at the videotapes of Game 3, he saw his team had scored 10 points on "blatant miracles."
"Otherwise, they dominated us," Van Gundy said.
He shuffled his lineup, benching power forward Kurt Thomas and inserting Latrell Sprewell into the lineup. But Sprewell struggled, missing 8 of 14 shots and scoring 12 points in 33 minutes.
Sprewell also had a terrible time attempting to stop Mullin, who hit 7 of 13 shots and had his best game of the series.
As for the Game 3 hero, Johnson missed 10 of 15 shots and scored 11 points. Guard Allan Houston scored 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
"We're right back to where we were in the regular season with this team," Van Gundy said. "If we think we're going to win a series by giving up 50 percent shooting, we're mistaken. We're a defense and rebounding team, and we didn't do either one tonight."
Asked about starting Sprewell, he said: "It doesn't matter who we start if we defend and rebound like that. We could start the assistant coaches. If we don't guard them better and don't rebound well, we're going to be in for a long struggle."
The Knicks hinted before the game that Bird had placed a bounty on Camby's head. Bird confirmed he'd told his players to be more physical, but laughed at the suggestion of a bounty.
"If there's a bounty, I ain't going to pay it," he said.
The Pacers led just 23-20 after the first quarter, but scored the first five points of the second quarter. Indiana stretched its lead to 45-32 at the half.
The Knicks remained close in the third quarter, but in the fourth, the Pacers answered every challenge. After a drive by Chris Childs made it 73-66, Antonio Davis converted a three-point play. Childs drove again, but Miller scored from the baseline to make it 78-68. It went that way down the stretch with the Pacers keeping the Knicks just out of reach.
After watching the Knicks finish Game 3 with a miracle, virtually all the Pacers said they were surprised by how well they dealt with the emotions.
"The one strength of our team is how we approach every day," Mullin said. "We don't get too high after wins. As tough as that loss was, we sat down and talked before we got back to the hotel and made sure we'd put it behind us."
CAPTION: Knicks' Allan Houston shoots despite defense of Mark Jackson, left, and Reggie Miller. Houston scored 14 points but the Pacers won Game 4.
CAPTION: Guard Charlie Ward, right, of the Knicks gets the jump on the taller Dale Davis of the Pacers for a rebound in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
CAPTION: The Pacers' Chris Mullin, right, holds his ground as Latrell Sprewell of the Knicks attempts a drive in Game 4.