Those of you concerned with the emotional state of your good buddy, Pat Riley, can rest easy. Though he probably considered it, the Miami Heat coach didn’t take a suicide plunge off the roof of American Airlines Arena on Sunday evening. Presumably, Mr. GQ consoled himself with the knowledge that, while he didn’t end Gotham’s title hopes, he at least softened up the Knicks and trained the spotlight on some vulnerabilities the Indiana Pacers could exploit in the Eastern Conference Finals.
There’s an old saying in boxing, “Win this one, and look good in the next one,” and that certainly could have been Jeff Van Gundy’s mantra for the rumble with Riley. Conceding home-court advantage, trailing in the series after the first, third, and fifth games, and facing an incredibly determined nemesis that led by 15 points at halftime of Game 6, the Knicks couldn’t win the series any way but ugly. Hey, they’ll take it. But to overcome the top-seeded Pacers, they’ll have to play a whole lot better.
Indiana still gets gas pains at the reminder of last season’s six-game ousting by the Knicks in the conference finals, complete with Larry Johnson’s four-point play, Marcus Camby emerging from nowhere to dominate the series, and Reggie Miller shooting 3-for-18 from the field in the clincher. Watching Knicks-Heat unfold, however, the Pacers had to be encouraged. Everywhere there were signs that the Knicks were overconfident, out-of-sync, and allowing themselves little margin for error.
Despite their denials, it was apparent the Knicks read all those newspaper stories predicting their triumph in five or six games. After Vince Carter was shut down en route to a sweep of Toronto in the first round, the media hailed Latrell Sprewell for stifling “Heir Jordan,” ignoring the fact that he was helped by double-teams repeatedly. Against Miami’s Jamal Mashburn, Sprewell was exposed as an average defender. Mashburn averaged 19.2 points in the first five games, outpacing Sprewell by 2.2 points per.
In the conference finals, Sprewell will square off with Jalen Rose, a limited factor as a sixth man last year, but a starter who averaged 18.2 points this season and added mobility to a Pacers offense that previously flowed like clumpy oatmeal. The 6-8 Rose, who put up 28 points against the Knicks on March 21, will get his shot off over the 6-5 Sprewell, and provide Indiana with a more reliable defense than the creaking, 35-year-old Chris Mullin did in last year’s showdown.
Another tough matchup for the Knicks will be at point guard, where Indiana’s Mark Jackson has traditionally used his superior strength to post-up Charlie Ward. Despite the Pacers’ meltdown, Jackson averaged 12 points, 6.6 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game in the ’99 conference finals, while Ward and Chris Childs combined for 9.5 points, 6.8 assists, and 4.6 rebounds. And Jackson, unlike his Knicks counterparts, knows his role and sticks to it—he’s a playmaker first, scorer second.
The Knicks quarterbacks, however, are at risk of throwing one hail-mary too many. Taking advantage of a wounded Tim Hardaway and inexperienced Anthony Carter, Ward played better than expected against Miami, putting away Game 4 by himself. In Game 7, though, his ego took over. Ward confused himself with Stephon Marbury (oh, the power of those press clippings), firing up one ill-advised three-point attempt after another and shooting 2-for-9. And following his fourth-quarter heroics in Game 7, when he tallied the Knicks’ first 10 points, is Childs also at risk of overestimating his importance to the offense?
Knicks-Pacers figures to be another war. In their first season at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Pacers tied for the best home record in the NBA at 36-5, and Indiana almost never loses back-to-back games to the same team. This season, the Pacers are 20-1 against opponents who’ve beaten them in their previous meeting. The Knicks ousted the Pacers last year in large part because of Camby, who, in the final four games, averaged 18.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks. If the Pacers were watching the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, however, they’ve seen a different Camby. That is, if they spotted him at all.
Once an energizing force, Camby has lately become strangely tentative and unsteady. He shot 26 percent from the floor in the last six games of the Miami series, including 0-for-4 in Game 7. And don’t forget, we’re talking about a guy who takes most of his shots from within five feet of the rim.
Then there’s Allan Houston, who averaged 16 points per game for the Heat series (3.7 below his regular season average) and allowed slow, 34-year-old Dan Majerle to keep him in check during key moments. Houston’s defense frustrated Miller last year, forcing him to expend most of his energy fighting to get open. But Houston has displayed little of that defensive intensity this season. On Sunday, he gave more ammunition to those who question his grit. Troubled by a sprained left ankle, he disappeared, scoring only five points on 2-for-10 shooting.
Yet one more problem for the Knicks is the fact that their eight-man rotation has, at times, become a seven-man rotation. Instead of serving as an X factor, backup forward Kurt Thomas has become a T factor. The hotheaded reserve has gotten quick hooks and extended pine time ever since it became apparent that he’d rather serve as an enforcer and ref-baiter than a defender and rebounder.
How Thomas clings to the bench, Sprewell clings to Rose, and all the Knicks cling to Van Gundy’s credos of hustle, playing within oneself, and taking nothing for granted, are likely to determine the team’s fate. Unlike the Heat, the Pacers don’t have a mental block vs. the Knicks, having beaten them twice in best-of-seven series. Indiana also has a less-predictable offense than in the past, and a rejuvenated Miller has been the NBA’s most clutch performer so far this postseason.
Shortly after the Knicks vanquished the Heat, Sprewell stood on the edge of the court, looked out at those Knicks fans who had made the trek down to New York’s sixth borough, and held aloft the orange towel that has become their symbol. Sometime around the first week of June, that piece of terry cloth is going to serve as either the NBA’s most recognizable victory flag or one awfully garish crying towel.