With his team on the brink of being a footnote in potentially the most lopsided NBA Finals in years, Allan Houston pumped life into his New York Knicks and this championship series tonight.
The rangy shooting guard opened with a fury, thwarted every attempt at a rally and finished with 34 points in leading the Knicks to an 89-81 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 before 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.
The Spurs' lead in this best-of seven series was trimmed to 2-1, ending the longest NBA postseason winning streak in history at 12 games. San Antonio last lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves on May 11 in Game 2 of their first-round Western Conference series.
The Knicks also handed the Spurs their first road loss of the playoffs. Games 4 and 5 will be played Wednesday and Friday, respectively, in New York. The final two games of this series, if needed, will be played in San Antonio.
"I hope to be a pain in the neck and unstoppable," Houston said. "I just want to be consistent and use my God-given ability."
The Knicks never trailed. Equally as impressive, they held Tim Duncan (20 points, 12 rebounds) scoreless in the fourth period, when San Antonio got as close as four.
"They were a little more aggressive and I missed some shots I usually hit," said Duncan, who was 0 for 4 with three turnovers in the fourth period. "[Larry Johnson], Kurt Thomas, Chris Dudley -- they did a great job. They kept a body on me."
The Spurs tried to keep a body on Houston, but the defenders most responsible for him -- Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson -- were hampered by fouls. That seemed to fuel Houston's aggressiveness, which already was at a fever pitch.
Houston scored 13 points in the first quarter, in which New York jumped to a 32-21 lead -- an edge the Spurs dwindled but could never overcome.
"The first quarter, we gave up 32 points and that's not like our team at all," David Robinson said.
Several of Houston's baskets, particularly in the second half, stalled runs by the Spurs.
In the fourth quarter, Houston snapped San Antonio's 9-3 run with a jump shot that extended New York's lead to 83-77. That basket, which was followed by a short jumper by Marcus Camby, put the game on ice.
Houston's biggest shot may have been a three-point basket as the shot clock expired in the third quarter, after San Antonio used an 8-0 run to pull to 58-58 with 3 minutes 34 seconds left.
The field goal, which came after forward Kurt Thomas kicked a pass out to Houston after he picked up a loose ball after an air ball by Johnson, gave the Knicks the lead for good.
"That was a key play -- it kept us in the lead," Houston said. "Our execution was much better tonight. That's the only way we're going to be able to get to the free throw line and get to the basket."
San Antonio was undone by its uncharacteristic 20 turnovers that led to 18 New York points. Duncan had five and point guard Avery Johnson had six.
New York made 23 of 30 free throws -- Houston 12 of 12 -- after getting to the line 31 times in the first two games of the series.
"Obviously we got to the free throw line tonight, which we needed to do, and I think we were very aggressive trying to get to the spots we wanted on the floor tonight," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We thought we caught the ball deeper in the post than we had in the previous two games."
The Knicks appeared as though they would put away the Spurs early in the fourth when Houston made a jump shot to put New York up 78-68. Elie and Robinson (25 points, 10 rebounds) sank free throws after being fouled on short field goals. Sean Elliott then made his first three-pointer to cut New York's lead to four.
But as they had all game, the Knicks staved off the surge. Houston and Camby scored to give New York an 85-77 lead with 2:18 left.
Houston scored seven straight points early in the third period to give the Knicks a nine-point lead, and helped hold off a Spurs team that worked its way back into the game through the low post.
The Knicks had to play almost the entire period without Camby, who started at center but collected four fouls, his last two in the opening minutes of the third.
After posting anemic offensive numbers in their Game 2 loss to the Spurs, the Knicks shot 46 percent in taking a 49-46 halftime lead. New York cooled from a scorching first quarter in which it led by 14, but a significantly improved offense was a sign that it did have life.
Houston had 18 points in the half to lead the Knicks, four more than Sprewell. The back-court dominance made up for a foul-prone front court that produced two points from the center position occupied by Camby, Thomas and Dudley.
"They played a great game," Duncan said of the Knicks. "Allan Houston and Latrell came out and played a very aggressive game, took the ball to the basket and made things happen. Allan Houston was incredible. He played a great game throughout."
CAPTION: The Knicks' Marcus Camby, middle, battles for rebound with Spurs David Robinson (50) and Tim Duncan in Game 3 of NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks won but trail the series 2-1.
CAPTION: It's good feelings all around for Knicks Allan Houston, left, Larry Johnson and Latrell Spreewell (8) after Houston drops in three of his game-high 34 points.
CAPTION: Allan Houston of the Knicks drives past the Spurs' Jaren Jackson. Houston finished with a game-high 34 points.