There have been three times in this postseason when the New York Knicks had to win or get ready to take a hike. Each time, Allan Houston carried them, demanding the ball and hitting the shots only the great players hit. Game 5 in Miami, on the brink of elimination, Houston hit the game-winner with less than six seconds remaining. Game 6 here against the Pacers, Houston's 32 points kept the Knicks from having to face a Game 7 back in Indiana. And Game 3 here Monday night in the NBA Finals, against a team that hadn't lost in a month, Houston's 34 points pulled the Knicks into this series when a Spurs sweep seemed a distinct possibility.
It's yet another move by demoted general manager Ernie Grunfeld that is turning out to be the right move. Instead of chasing Reggie Miller and Steve Smith three years ago during the bonanza free agency summer of '96, the Knicks signed Houston. And while Gotham is fascinated on so many levels with Latrell Sprewell, it is Houston who has become the Knicks' go-to guy and best player.
When asked Tuesday whether Houston has replaced Patrick Ewing as the Knicks' superstar, Coach Jeff Van Gundy had the only appropriate answer: "I wouldn't say replace. You can have more than one; that's how you win in this league."
Van Gundy went on to say that to be considered great a player has to pass two tests: doing it often and doing it late in the game. "The toughest thing to find," he said, "are people who can make the critical shots."
Because he has done that three times now in this postseason, and done it without the help of an inside presence such as the 7-foot Ewing, Houston has probably shot himself into elite status just in the last four weeks. At a time when few NBA players younger than 30 can be described as "pure shooters," Houston is probably the purest. At 6-6 he can play the post-up game and shoot from six or seven feet. His favorite distance is probably 18 feet, give or take a foot. He can shoot the little runner from 10 to 12 feet. And he has no problem stroking the three, as evidenced by his 41 percent accuracy from downtown during the regular season. "He's their go-to guy now," San Antonio's Steve Kerr said. "He's emerged the last couple of series as the guy who can carry them. As we're making adjustments for Game 4 [Wednesday night], certainly they will come on Houston and how we defend him."
Kerr, who is more qualified than most to assess a shooter, has been around long enough to remember when a lot of people could shoot the ball. Kerr believes that the style of game these days de-emphasizes shooting. But he added, "Young players are focusing more and more on penetrating, dunking and trying to create off the dribble. And as a result, we're seeing fewer of what you'd call pure shooters.
"As a fan, I really enjoyed [Houston's performance in] Game 6 versus Indiana. It was like watching Michael all over again in the third quarter. It's so rare to see a player taking over a game with jump shooting. Michael, of course, could do everything. But he set up so many things with the jump shot. With Houston, the jump shot is also the foundation of his whole game."
The fact that an under-30 player has a foundation is almost a shock these days. It's no coincidence that Houston is a coach's son; he played for his father, Wade, at the University of Tennessee. "He probably had a basket in the back yard and got all the fundamentals really early," teammate Herb Williams said. "Yes, it helps that his father was a coach. The thing is, everybody wants to dunk the ball now, and they don't care about fundamentals. You may see two or three dunks per NBA game. If you see four or five in one game, that's a lot. He doesn't have to go to extremes. He's not a three-point guy; I mean, if he's got a good, clean look at it, okay. But I think he's more effective when he's shooting deuces."
Houston said Monday: "My strength [has always been] shooting mid-range jump shots. Ever since high school, that's the one range I was always comfortable with. . . . You look at a lot of the great players -- Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Oscar Robertson -- those guys lived off that mid-range jump shot because nobody could do anything about it. And hopefully, it's something I can just continue to be successful with."
Houston has had most of the physical components for a while. The Knicks knew that when they signed him away from Detroit. But what Houston had to acquire was a shooter's arrogance and greed. Most of his first two seasons, he understandably deferred to Ewing. He started to assert himself when Ewing suffered a serious wrist injury. But this season he had to share the shots not only with Ewing, but also with Sprewell and to a lesser extent, Larry Johnson.
But basketball isn't socialism. The most dependable players get to take more shots and most of the important shots. After averaging 16 points per game during the regular season, Houston had averaged 18.6 points in the playoffs, just behind Sprewell's 19.2.
And, as you would expect, hitting that game-winner in Miami sent his confidence surging to a new level. Playmaker Chris Childs said only now, late this season and in these playoffs, has Houston started demanding the basketball, assertively creating shots for himself off the dribble. That's why he's leading the Knicks with 24 points per game in this series with San Antonio.
The natural question is whether Houston would have evolved the same way with Ewing on the floor. Well, he beat Miami with Ewing on the floor. And I suspect by now, whether you're on the bench in street clothes like Ewing or on the floor in uniform like the others, the New York Knicks understand even better than the opponent that Allan Houston has a rare talent for these times, and more than anything, it's the reason why they're still alive in these NBA playoffs.