The New York Knicks have been Patrick Ewing's team for so long, it's still difficult to get comfortable with the notion that somebody else will have to be great for them to win an NBA championship.
Rumors swirled around Madison Square Garden Monday night that Ewing might make a miraculous Willis Reed-type appearance before this championship series is over. But as wonderful as it would be to see Ewing suit up in these NBA Finals, an inspirational few minutes and a couple of baskets at the start of a game won't carry the Knicks past the San Antonio Spurs.
Any scenario that has the Knicks challenging the Spurs starts with Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell being great. All players are not created equally. They might not have enough -- just the two of them -- to beat the Spurs. But as we saw in New York's 89-81 victory in Game 3 Monday night in the Garden, the pair has enough to put the Knicks in a position to push the Spurs, to make them sweat more than a little.
Houston's 34 points and Sprewell's 24 were prerequisites in New York's victory in Game 3. So was a radical swing in the number of fouls called, relative to the first two games in San Antonio. So was the idea that David Robinson and Tim Duncan were the only Spurs who showed up to play.
But any analysis of Game 3 has to start with Houston and Sprewell.
Size does matter, but there's still something special about watching two, medium-sized, all-court players create space for themselves, score from almost any spot on the court, handle the ball and play defense. Houston and Sprewell were downright electrifying Monday night, reminding us once again that these are not your daddy's Knicks.
There's nothing old or slow or plodding, nothing half-court oriented about this New York team. Goodness, is this a more athletic, fun-to-watch team than the last Knicks team that made the Finals, in 1994, even if it is playing short-handed without Ewing?
We saw Monday night why the Knicks paid more than $50 million to sign Houston away from Detroit three years ago, and why they took a chance on Sprewell after his coach-choking incident 18 months ago. All-court brilliance is hard to find. A pure shooter, which Houston is, may be the rarest commodity in the league.
"Allan was a pain in the neck," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said, admiringly.
"I want to be that every night," Houston countered.
The key sequence in the game might have come in the third quarter, strangely enough. San Antonio, having earlier wiped out a 14-point deficit, appeared ready to take the lead. The Knicks had missed a shot, and the loose ball rolled out to Houston with about two seconds left on the shot clock.
It's exactly the kind of moment the truly great players own. Magic and Bird did, Isiah Thomas did, Michael Jordan did.
Houston fired up a three-pointer to put the Knicks back on top, 61-58, and they never trailed. Not once.
Of course, the Knicks had more than Sprewell and Houston in their favor. The absurd disparity in free throw shooting that we saw the first two games disappeared Monday night, which was no small deal.
No sport has the wild swings, based on the way the game is officiated, like the NBA. That's probably why the coaches whine between games. This series is a perfect example of that inconsistency.
In Game 1, New York made one fewer basket than San Antonio (32-31), but the Spurs shot 31 free throws and the Knicks shot 19. In Game 2, the teams each made 27 shots from the field, each made two three-pointers, but the Knicks shot 12 free throws while the Spurs took 35. So, for the first two games in the Finals, the home team shot 35 more foul shots. Coincidence? I don't think so.
There are similar, if less dramatic, swings in foul calls every year in the playoffs. And the foul-shooting advantages seem to always follow the home team.
That's just one of the reasons the Knicks believed they could climb back into this series with the action moving north to Madison Square Garden. Okay, the Spurs probably committed fewer fouls in those first two games because they have such a decided height advantage around the basket, and because the Knicks were coming from behind and had to foul late in the game to stop the clock and force San Antonio to the foul line.
Still, it didn't figure we'd see a huge disparity in fouls Monday night favoring the Spurs, and we didn't. The Knicks shot 30 free throws in Game 3 while the Spurs took 22. Check this: For the series, the Knicks have hit more shots from the field than the Spurs (89-88).
It certainly helped that Larry Johnson moved so much better on his sprained right knee than he had in San Antonio and scored 16 points in support of Sprewell and Houston.
It's up to the Spurs now to find somebody who'll do something more than be a statue while Duncan and Robinson do all the work. Even Duncan didn't score in the fourth quarter. And while New Yorkers will assign some ridiculous credit to L.J.'s defense, Duncan ripped himself afterward. Watch him come back huge in Game 4 Wednesday night.
It was amazing, really, that the Spurs could climb back to tie after trailing by 14 points given the lack of production they got from Sean Elliott, Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson. All Elie and Jackson did was collect fouls. Jackson didn't hit a shot and Elie made just two in six attempts. Avery Johnson committed an uncharacteristic four turnovers in the first half. It was the seldom-used Antonio Daniels whose three baskets in the first half -- two of them three-pointers -- that kept San Antonio close until Duncan and Robinson got warm.
San Antonio's NBA-record 12-game playoff winning streak, as a result, is over. So is its undefeated record on the road this postseason. A day that began with talk of a non-competitive sweep ended with a 2-1 Spurs lead and the Knicks looking to tie on Wednesday; a championship series that, thankfully and perhaps even surprisingly, has suddenly become competitive.