Winning Ugly

In their conference final the Knicks and the Pacers beat each other with the same bump-and-grind style
June 05, 1994

The first hint that the NBA Eastern Conference finals would not be an aesthetic triumph came before the series began, when several of the New York Knicks declared that their opponents, the Indiana Pacers, reminded them of themselves. That was a scary observation, for while the Knicks—who play hard, foul harder and often shoot harder still—are effective with their style, the world does not need two teams like them.

That was never more evident than last week, when the Knicks and Pacers combined to produce the first four acts of a series that wasn't terribly easy on the eyes. In fact, maybe the two teams should have had their vision checked, because by the time they finished Game 4 on Monday, which the Pacers won 83-77 to tie the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, they had taken turns misfiring miserably from the field. Three key offensive players, Patrick Ewing of the Knicks and the Pacers' Derrick McKey and Haywoode Workman, had each struggled through an entire game without hitting a single field goal; long-range gunners Reggie Miller of Indiana and John Starks of New York frequently shot blanks; and with their 88-68 Game 3 loss, the Knicks had set an NBA playoff record (in the 24-second clock era) for fewest points scored in a game. In Game 4 the Knicks even had the same number of turnovers—26—as they did field goals. Games 3 and 4 of the series, both played at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, sandwiched the Indianapolis 500, which meant that for one weekend the city had two Brickyards.

Maybe the problem was that the Knicks and Pacers are too much alike. Both have foreign-born 7-footers at center, volatile shooting guards, small forwards who tend to appear and disappear as easily and often as ghosts, and a willingness to flex their muscles whenever necessary. It's that last characteristic that has been largely responsible for the periods of offensive ineptitude experienced by both teams. Gone is the counterpoint that the Chicago Bulls, with their fluid game of passing and cutting, provided to the Knicks' physical approach in their Eastern semifinal series. In its place are two heavy-handed teams, each trying to outplay its shadow. "That's just the way it's going to be with teams like these," said Miller, the Pacer marksman who came into the series averaging 22.0 points in the playoff's but was harassed by several Knick defenders into a 17.0 average on 18-of-42 shooting in the first three games (in the fourth he scored a game-high 31 points). "Both of us are good at disrupting the other's offense, so if you're looking for real graceful basketball, you're not going to find it here. This series is more about intensity than beauty."

There was nothing at all pretty about Game 3, a ragged affair—especially on the Knicks' part—that surely won't turn up in any of the NBA's I Love This Game promos. Foul-plagued Knick center Ewing missed all 10 of his shots from the floor and three of his four free throws. Afterward, he sat in front of his locker and good-naturedly recalled the last time he had been held to a single point: in his first game at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin High only three years after he'd arrived in the U.S. from his native Jamaica. Ewing said he couldn't remember how well he had done in the following game, so at reporters' urging, he made something up. "I think I scored 50 points and blocked about 20 shots in my next one," he said with a grin. In Game 4, Ewing snapped back with a team-high 25 points.

Maybe Ewing was able to shrug off his Game 3 performance so easily—outwardly, at least—because he knew the Pacers would have to win at least once at Madison Square Garden to take the series, and that seemed highly unlikely after the first two games there. In the series opener, won by the Knicks 100-89, Workman, the Pacer point guard, missed all eight of his shots, and McKey, Indiana's small forward, missed all seven of his. McKey then prolonged his slump by going 2 for 9 in an 89-78 Game 2 loss. Unlike his Knick counterpart, Charles Smith, who was mostly missing in action with a total of 18 points through the four games, McKey recovered with a 15-point performance in Game 3 and 10 in Game 4, which only added to his reputation as an enigma. A skilled offensive player, the docile McKey is also one of the few players in the league who actually has to be coaxed to shoot, as Indiana coach Larry Brown commanded him to do before Game 3.

Until then the Pacers seemed to be relying solely on Miller and 7'4" Dutch-born center Rik Smits to carry them, and Smits was almost up to the task. He scored 27 points in 27 minutes in Game 1 and had 22 in Game 2, then added a respectable 14-point effort in Game 3 and 15 in Game 4. Smits credits much of his recent upsurge to Brown. Once a 240-pound beanpole, the Pacer center had bulked up to as much as 285 pounds; but when Brown became the Indiana coach before this season, he quickly told Smits to trim down. Smits cut back on his beloved french fries and dropped to 250 pounds, a weight at which he is more agile. In the playoffs he has shown a variety of post-up moves as well as the feather-soft shooting touch he has always had. Says Ewing, "If you let him get the ball in the paint, he's as automatic as any center in the league."

While Smits was thriving, Starks and Miller were struggling, mostly while guarding each other. Although he wasn't always his usual self offensively, Miller was largely responsible for forcing Starks to miss 23 of his 36 shots in the four games. Perhaps Miller recognizes that Starks's game—running his defender through a gantlet of picks and popping out for jump shots—is so similar to his own. Says Starks, "I think we see a lot of ourselves in each other. It's fun to play against somebody who's a lot like you are, but it's also hard."

It can't be any harder to do than it is to watch.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERIn a messy Game 3 the Knicks' Charles Oakley (34) muscled past the new, leaner Smits.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)