Just two months ago, the New York Knicks were not much good with Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson in the lineup. Tonight, with Ewing and Johnson injured, the Knicks completed an improbable and dramatic trip to the NBA Finals by eliminating the favored Indiana Pacers, 90-82, in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference finals series.
"This has to be one of the great nights in Knicks history and one of the great nights in the history of Madison Square Garden," Garden and Knicks President Dave Checketts said. "I don't think anybody expected this; I know I didn't."
Johnson, the Knicks' hero in Games 3 and 5, sprained his right knee in the second quarter, but the Knicks got 32 points from guard Allan Houston and another energized effort from Marcus Camby to become the first No. 8 seed to advance to the NBA Finals.
Houston (12 of 17 overall) made 11 of his last 12 shots, Camby scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a reserve role and Latrell Sprewell scored 20 points to carry the Knicks, who will play the Spurs in Game 1 on Wednesday in San Antonio.
It was a particularly bitter loss for the Pacers, who were favored to win this series even before Ewing went out of the lineup in Game 2 with a partially torn Achilles' tendon. The Pacers, after losing Game 7 of the 1994 conference finals to the Knicks, Game 7 of the 1995 conference finals to Orlando, and Game 7 of the 1998 conference finals to Chicago, had hoped to extend this series to Game 7, which would have been played in Indianapolis Sunday night.
Instead, the Pacers failed to beat the Knicks without two of their best players. Knicks nemesis Reggie Miller had another ineffective game -- he missed 15 of 18 shots, scored just eight points and was not his team's primary weapon down the stretch. And when Rik Smits fouled out late in the game after scoring a team-high 20 points, the Pacers did not have enough firepower.
"We just didn't have enough people come to play," Pacers Coach Larry Bird said. "We never got the five guys we needed to win a ballgame. . . . We have to have five, six guys. We didn't have that many guys step up and play."
The Knicks carried a bizarre season improbably into another round of these playoffs. The Knicks fired their general manager, Ernie Grunfeld, late in the season essentially for acquiring Sprewell and Camby. Checketts talked to Phil Jackson about coaching the Knicks next season, lied about that to Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy, and had to publicly apologize two weeks ago.
Late tonight, Checketts still declined to say Van Gundy will be back next season. "We agreed not to talk about it," he said.
The Knicks needed a last-second shot from Houston to beat top-seeded Miami in Game 5 on the road, swept fourth-seeded Atlanta, and took out the Pacers.
"It's been a wild, wild season," Camby said. "We're on an emotional high right now, and we're going to just have to find a way to get it done [without Ewing and Johnson]."
To do so without Johnson made the whole thing even more surreal and improbable.
Johnson's participation for the night ended with 6 minutes 3 seconds to play in the second quarter when his right knee was roll-blocked by Indiana's Travis Best, who tumbled after a drive to the basket. Johnson was immediately taken to a nearby hospital where doctors diagnosed a sprained medial collateral ligament.
It was too early in the game for Johnson to be heroic, as he was at the end of Game 3 when his four-point play beat the Pacers, and Game 5 when a pair of three-pointers put the Knicks back in control of the series.
With Miller struggling again, the Pacers were hard pressed to score. Miller missed 10 of his first 12 shots tonight. Fortunately for Indiana, Smits scored nine early points to keep his team close.
The Knicks then displayed the style that has gotten them this far into the playoffs after finishing the regular season as the weakest playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Camby scored on a flying layup and the subsequent foul shot. Sprewell scored off a spinning move to the basket and Houston scored four quick points, two off a jumper in transition to give the Knicks a 41-35 halftime lead.
That seemed to get Indiana's attention, at last. The Pacers, after shooting only 38.5 percent the first half and getting to the foul line only four times, scored the first 11 points of the second half to turn their six-point deficit into a 46-41 lead. The Knicks were clearly reeling at that point, missing Johnson's toughness in the low post and his versatility on the perimeter.
But the thing the Knicks have been able to do this postseason is find the one guy who can carry them out of a dry spell. In this case it was Houston. His first basket of the second half got New York to 48-44, the next to 51-48, and his driving scoop shot tied the game at 53 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
After Chris Childs and Jalen Rose traded baskets, Houston came up firing again, and gave the Knicks a 57-55 lead with just more than a minute left in the third that brought the Garden crowd out of the sullen funk that followed Johnson's injury.
CAPTION: Marcus Camby (15 points) exhorts crowd at Madison Square Garden during Game 6. Allan Houston had 32 points.
CAPTION: Knicks forward Larry Johnson is helped off the court after injuring his right knee in the second quarter of Game 6.