If the New York Knicks were going to continue this ridiculous Cinderella routine, they needed to beat Indiana Monday night at Madison Square Garden. They needed to push the lethargic Pacers to the edge, make them have to win three straight games to advance, make Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson and Larry Bird do some serious soul-searching.
And when Rik Smits went to the bench with two fouls 30 seconds into Game 4 of these Eastern Conference finals, and when Miller joined him after just two shots, it looked as if the basketball world was going to have to live through this Miracle on 34th Street story line for another couple of days, maybe another couple of weeks.
But the Pacers, perhaps sensing a season was slipping away, finally started to remind us why they were the favorites to reach the NBA Finals when these playoffs began.
They've got too many players on this team to wait around for Miller and Smits.
While Smits continues to be a study in frustration and Miller figures out if he wants to be a first-tier star, Jalen Rose and Chris Mullin are plenty capable of leading the Pacers past the Patrick Ewing-less Knicks. Mullin's 18 points in the first three quarters and Rose's game-high 19 made another passive performance by Miller tolerable this time, though still inexplicable. On a night in which Smits scored four points and Miller only a dozen, the Pacers had enough to control the final three quarters.
The Knicks, as currently constituted, simply should not beat the Pacers four out of seven games in a playoff series. And with an agitated Bird pointing that out since Saturday's debacle, maybe the Pacers have come to understand that, too. "We feel, and we know, that we're the better team," Miller said, finally getting the point.
A year ago, Bird was a patient man, perhaps because he could afford to be. He had a veteran team that hardly ever tested his patience, a team that could be left to its own devices. It practiced the way a coach dreams a team should practice. The players got their rest. The role players deferred to the stars and the stars -- actually one star, Reggie -- took the big shots, deflected the praise and accepted the occasional blame. It was a perfect fit, Bird and his Pacers. They'd worn tired of Larry Brown's nit-picky perfection. Bird just sat there, let 'em play. And it worked.
This year, something's been missing. Even though they practiced during the lockout and declared their solidarity, something has been lacking that nobody has been able to put a finger on. The Pacers were 1-6 in one-point games during the regular season. The playoffs were supposed to be the cure, and a 7-1 record to start the postseason made us think -- made them think, too -- that everything was okay when it wasn't.
The Knicks shouldn't have walked into Madison Square Garden with a 2-1 lead Monday night and the Pacers knew it. Bird made sure they knew it on Saturday night, Sunday and into Monday. The same players who were so responsive last season have worn out Bird's patience.
So Bird did exactly what he should have done: He let his team have it. Collectively and individually, the stars and the role players alike. He probably had some nasty stuff to say to the team trainers and towel boys, too.
His best stuff was directed just where it should have been, at Miller. After averaging 24 points a night on 17 shots a game in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Miller is averaging 15.6 points on 11 shots a game against the Knicks. He's 0-for-5 shooting in the last three minutes of this series. The Pacers only have one star, and Miller's it. He's the biggest star in this series, maybe the biggest star left in the playoffs, and he feels he owns Madison Square Garden.
So where has he been in this series? Why is Mark Jackson taking the shots at the buzzer? Why is Miller a no-show? Bird wants to know. "With two minutes left in [Game 3], I was sitting there wondering when he was going to get the ball in his hands," Bird said. "Superstars are supposed to get the basketball, and Reggie didn't do it. Go get the ball. If you have to run out there and take it out of Mark's hands, go get the ball.
"I can remember back when they were in the Eastern Conference finals, when I wasn't coaching them. . . . I'd watch and look in the paper and say, `Wow, Miller shot just 12 times. You can't win games with Miller shooting 12 times.' Well, now I'm in it and he's shooting nine. So it shows what I've done."
Asked what he told Miller, Bird said: "I said, `Reggie, there are times during a game when you've got to be selfish. All superstars are.' "
Of course, Bird is right. If he had to go out and take the ball away from Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, he would. He did. Michael Jordan didn't have to have anybody else get him the ball; neither did Magic. Reggie Miller's a guard? This shouldn't even be an issue unless Miller promised to shoot more in Game 4, promised to shoot more the rest of this series. "At least 15, 20 times," he said.
And how many shots, exactly, did Miller take in Game 4, after promising to chuck it like nobody's business? Ten. One of those came in the final seconds.
But as Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy pointed out afterward, "When you're playing against Indiana, if you make it about just Miller, or just Miller and Smits, you're making a mistake. [Miller] didn't have to do anything; everybody else was getting open. We've got to guard. Everybody they step out on the floor can score."
Question is, do the Knicks have enough to guard all the Pacers? The newest Knicks subplot is that Van Gundy started Latrell Sprewell for only the fifth time all season. (How is it that the Knicks are the only team in the league not starting their best healthy player?) Van Gundy started Sprewell to keep Kurt Thomas from getting into foul trouble. But Sprewell got into foul trouble trying to guard Mullin. Talk about blasts from the past. Mullin wore out Spree and Larry Johnson, worked them for 18 points in only 28 minutes.
Maybe Miller will get a load of Mullin and Rose firing at will and rediscover his ability to get himself open. Regardless, it seems the Pacers are out of their funk at last, meaning nothing much the Knicks do will change this series. But what the Pacers have yet to demonstrate this season, as opposed to last, is a champion's sense of urgency every night, without being prodded by the coach, or first being embarrassed by a defeat that shouldn't have happened. If the Pacers can demonstrate that resolve from here on in, the Knicks are going to need a lot more than an absurd continuation call and a four-point play.
CAPTION: Jalen Rose keeps the ball away from the Knicks' Chris Childs during the Pacers' series-tying victory. Rose scored 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting.