With a 3-2 lead on the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, New York Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said his team is where he figured it would be all along.
"This is not a normal year," he said after Wednesday night's Game 5 victory over the host Pacers. "If this were a normal 82-game season, I don't think we'd be an eight seed."
If this were a normal 82-game season, the Knicks wouldn't be in the playoffs yet. They have played 64 games, including the lockout-shortened regular season and playoffs. That's about the time serious contenders typically play their best basketball.
Which seems to be the case for the Knicks -- and the San Antonio Spurs, the Western Conference champions who swept their way through the conference semifinals and finals against the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively.
New York's three new players -- forwards Latrell Sprewell, Kurt Thomas and especially Marcus Camby -- have become integral parts of New York's postseason ascension. Sprewell has averaged 17.2 points this series and scored a playoff-high 29 points in Game 5, his second start of the postseason. Thomas, who went to the bench in favor of Sprewell, has done nothing spectacular but has come up with timely rebounds and baskets that have stalled or halted Indiana runs.
Camby never advanced to the playoffs in his two seasons with the Toronto Raptors, but he perhaps has has been the series' most valuable player, averaging 14.2 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. In Game 5 he had 21 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks.
"He really hurt us in the boards," said Indiana forward Dale Davis, who had 18 rebounds Wednesday night. "We haven't done a good job on him."
Meanwhile, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Chris Childs and Chris Dudley -- the existing nucleus of players -- have maintained or elevated their games, especially in light of center Patrick Ewing's season-ending Achilles' tendon injury.
"It seemed like an impossible dream two months ago," said reserve center Herb Williams, referring to apparent in-house turmoil that resulted in New York barely making the playoffs. "We've proven to be a pretty good team after all."
The Pacers, meanwhile, are in familiar territory. Three times in the past four seasons they have made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing every time in seven games. The Knicks started the trend in 1993-1994, when they ended Indiana's run to make their first finals appearance since 1972-73.
"It's not the situation we wanted to be in but that's the way it is," Pacers Coach Larry Bird said. "We have to have everyone come out and play."
Whereas New York has progressed in this series, the Pacers fell back into their regular season pattern of inconsistency and failure to overcome tight situations -- a strange characteristic for a veteran, playoff-tested team with one of the game's most clutch players in Reggie Miller.
Still, they were good enough to win the Central Division with a 33-17 record and sweep their first two playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But those were young teams making rare playoff appearances. These Knicks have posed a different problem, and Indiana has not held firm.
The Pacers have blown fourth-quarter leads in all three losses to New York and have failed to defend their home court twice -- the only playoff losses in 14 postseason games at Market Square Arena.
In contrast, they overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win Game 2 and fended off the Knicks with relative ease in their Game 4 victory in New York.
"We are not playing consistent basketball for the entire 48 minutes," said forward Antonio Davis, a member of Indiana's bench that was outscored 34-15 in Game 5. "It's not over until we lose. It is important to us to understand this."
After jumping to a 9-0 start and 28-14 first-quarter lead in Game 5, the Pacers made just 23 of 61 field goals the rest of the game. That was due in large part to rushed shots and uncharacteristic one-on-one basketball.
Failure to convert in both areas allowed the Knicks to get into transition, where their skills and ability to finish cannot be matched by Indiana.
"Our offense broke down when we got into too many isolation plays and took too many quick shots," Bird said.
Nothing is certain in this series, as both teams have forfeited home-court advantage, which swings back in New York's favor.
"I'd like to finish off Indiana [at home]," Sprewell said. "We don't want to come out and be overconfident. We want to play Knicks basketball."
CAPTION: Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell hug after Game 5 win. "We've proven to be a pretty good team," Herb Williams said.
CAPTION: Marcus Camby's Game 5 performance against Pacers was worth shouting about: 21 points, 13 rebounds, 6 blocks.
CAPTION: Guard Latrell Sprewell has averaged 17.2 points against the Pacers. He scored 29 in Game 5. Knicks lead series 3-2 with Game 6 tonight in New York. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)