No matter the odds against them, the New York Knicks have proven resilient. As a result, they are on the verge of advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in five years.
The Knicks, who almost did not qualify for the playoffs, defeated the Indiana Pacers, 101-94, tonight at Market Square Arena before 16,541 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
"Everybody wrote us off," said forward Marcus Camby, who registered 21 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks. "We weren't supposed to make the playoffs, we weren't supposed to beat Miami in the first round. We swept Atlanta. We've got the opportunity to do something special."
After the Pacers evened the series at 2 in New York on Monday, it appeared that the Knicks were done. That the miracle run of the eighth seed was over. That Indiana had finally found its stride and the Knicks had run out of good fortune.
New York, led by Latrell Sprewell (29 points), vilified after a Game 4 showing in which he foundered in his first start in more than two months, overcame an early 14-point lead and a late surge by the Pacers to move within one game of playing the Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.
Key plays down the stretch, particularly two three-point shots by forward Larry Johnson, capped a 36-point fourth quarter by the Knicks and allowed them to bring the series back to New York with an edge.
The biggest baskets in the run could have been Johnson's three-pointers. With the Knicks up 83-82 with four minutes left, Johnson sandwiched two three-point shots around a jump shot by Rik Smits to put the Knicks up 89-84.
The Pacers never were able to bounce back.
"He made those two big shots," Pacers Coach Larry Bird said. "We need someone to step up and make the plays down the stretch like Larry Johnson did for them."
Johnson finished with 17 points, 15 coming in the second half. Allan Houston, who also struggled for much of this series, added 19 points. Thanks to Camby's huge night, New York's bench outscored the Pacers' reserves 34-15.
"For some reason, some of our guys just didn't come and play," Bird said. "It's too bad for us that some guys are confident while some guys talk it but can't walk it."
Bird might have been talking about Smits, who managed only eight points; Antonio Davis, who had four, and Jalen Rose, who totaled six.
"Our bench really wasn't there," Bird said. "We got absolutely nothing out of it."
"It's a one-game season for us," said Pacers guard Reggie Miller, who scored 19 of his game-high 30 points in the second half. "We've got to lay it all on the line. If any team's capable of doing it, it's this team. We've got to play much better than we did tonight. We can't give up 36 points in a quarter."
Much of New York's damage at the end came from the free throw line. After making 9 of 14 shots in their Game 4 loss, the Knicks made 13 of 16 foul shots in the fourth period and 30 of 40 overall. Sprewell made 7 of 8 in the fourth quarter and 13 of 14 overall.
"I was put in a position to see if they would pay off and they did," Sprewell said of his foul shots. "We know [a berth in the finals] is right there."
His aggressive play and 16-point first half made up for the early struggles of Houston and Johnson and helped New York rally from a 14-point deficit to go into halftime tied at 42. Houston and Johnson combined for six first-half points.
Houston got going in the third after collecting his third foul. Camby got going after finally getting a chance to play. Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy kept Camby on the bench for all but the final minute and a half of the third.
Once in, Camby, who has been New York's most consistent player this series, scored 10 points, blocked 3 shots and grabbed 5 rebounds.
"I wanted to finish with him," Van Gundy said about keeping Camby on the bench in the third.
Once inserted in the third quarter, Camby scored three of the Knicks' next four points to pull them to 67-65. But Rose, who also got little playing time in the period, scored on a driving layup to close the period.
The Knicks trailed 28-14 after the first quarter, then outscored the Pacers by the same total in the second period. New York held Indiana to 20 percent shooting in the second period while making 56 percent of its shots.
New York's relentless hustle and increased defense, combined with a long overdue offensive explosion from Sprewell, allowed for its comeback against a Pacers team that lost its cohesiveness at both ends after a dominant start.
The Knicks began their comeback at the outset of the second quarter, using an 8-2 run against Indiana's reserve-laden lineup to pull to 30-22. The Pacers eventually got on track after re-inserting their starters around the seven-minute mark. They extended their lead to 35-28 after Dale Davis's layup.
From there, though, Indiana missed several hurried shots -- particularly Miller -- and that allowed New York to get its transition game going.
Camby gave the Knicks their first lead with 2 minutes 35 seconds left after converting a three-point play to make the score 38-37. Indiana countered with a 4-2 run before Sprewell made the play of the half, scoring on a driving baseline layup in which he switched the ball from his right to left hand in mid-air.
CAPTION: Rik Smits, left, draws the close attention of Knicks' Kurt Thomas during Game 5. The game ended too late to be included in this edition.
CAPTION: Pacers' Derrick McKey (9) is too late to stop Latrell Sprewell, who scored 29 points to help Knicks win game 5 of Eastern Conference finals.
CAPTION: As the Pacers and New York Knicks play inside Market Square Arena, Indiana fans outside cheer on their team with the help of a giant television screen.