How many times had he endured the wrath of Madison Square Garden?
Charlie Ward was, after all, the one New York Knicks fans usually
blamed for their team's inability to win a championship. The
Knicks would forever fall short, said the faithful, until they
got a point guard who was bigger, meaner, better. Late in the
fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at the
Garden on Monday, the discerning throng of 19,763 voiced their
feelings for Ward, feelings that have become even stronger and
deeper as the playoffs have worn on.
After watching Ward quarterback a stunning transition attack that
had New York shooting 66.7% and leading 57-40 at the half, after
seeing him bury a critical three-pointer to help stave off a
fourth-quarter Indiana comeback, after witnessing his playmaking
and defense help the gritty Knicks win 91-89 to square the series
at two games apiece, his onetime critics made a serenade of his
first name, embracing him as the guy they had really wanted all
along. "Gratifying? I guess you could say that," Ward mused. "You
go through so much, and all you ever want is a chance to show
what you are capable of doing."
For six seasons Ward's teammates have watched him methodically
launch hundreds of three-pointers after practice, preparing for
the time he would have to make that shot when it mattered most.
Not that Ward ever exaggerated his importance. His job was to get
the ball to small forward Latrell Sprewell or shooting guard
Allan Houston or to Patrick Ewing on the block, then get the hell
out of the way. But with Sprewell hobbling from an incomplete
fracture in his left foot, Houston smothered by double teams, and
an injured Ewing stuck on the bench in street clothes, Ward had
to take charge.
Sometimes that meant setting up forward Larry Johnson (25 points)
with an entry pass in the post or a kick-out for a three;
sometimes it meant squaring up and firing away himself. Along
with 16 points, Ward racked up seven assists, six rebounds and
three steals. He also presented a maddening quandary for Pacers
coach Larry Bird. Ward could streak past Mark Jackson for easy
baskets, but when Bird used Jackson's quicker backup, Travis
Best, Ward thwarted Best on the defensive end by preventing his
penetration, leaving Indiana's offense hopelessly out of sync.
Conversely, the Knicks had never looked more confident or
efficient--until the final quarter, when Ewing's absence came
into play. With no consistent rebounding or defensive presence
in the low post, New York watched the Pacers mount their
comeback. Sprewell and Houston had burned Indiana badly on
isolation plays in New York's 98-95 Game 3 victory, but in the
final four minutes of Game 4, the Pacers opted to double-team
the Knicks' two sharpshooters, cutting the lead to 85-80 with
2:20 left. That's when Ward delivered. "Basically, we said to
them, 'Someone else is going to have to beat us,'" said backup
power forward Austin Croshere. "And that's what happened."
So with the pair of road losses, the doubts about Indiana
resurfaced, the questions began anew. In seizing the first two
games the Pacers had seemed poised to exorcise their demons of a
year ago, when New York, the eighth seed, shocked them in the
conference finals. Remember how offensively challenged Indiana
was at crunch time in that series, how it repeatedly relied on
Reggie Miller to drop improbable three-point bombs with a couple
of Knicks hanging on his spindly arms? To address that
shortcoming the Pacers developed a second scorer, swingman Jalen
Rose, to make New York pay for its double teams. Remember how
forward Marcus Camby terrorized the Pacers, destroying them with
his athleticism, rebounding and energy? Bird vowed Camby would
not run wild again and gave everyone explicit orders: Keep him
off the glass.
Remember how Indiana lost three of the four games in which Ewing
was sidelined with a partially torn Achilles tendon? Surely the
newer, wiser Pacers would exploit the absence of Ewing, who
limped off the court with acute peroneal tendinitis and plantar
fasciitis in his right foot after only 6 1/2 minutes in Game 2
last Thursday. Indiana's good fortune was quickly doubled in the
second quarter of Game 3, when Camby slipped as he drove to the
basket and was sent to the hospital with what would be diagnosed
as a sprained right knee. No Ewing, no Camby, no way the Pacers
could lose, right?
Well, yes, there was, and it was the same way they did in '99.
The Knicks unleashed their smaller, quicker lineup and turned up
the pressure. New York coach Jeff Van Gundy also had his troops
play denial defense and thwart the entry pass to Pacers center
Rik Smits, who had poured in 21 points in the first half. With
Ewing and Camby out--Camby would return and play 18 minutes in
Game 4--the task of fronting the 7'4" Smits fell to forward Kurt
Thomas, who is seven inches shorter, and to 6'11" Chris Dudley,
who had played all of 10 minutes in the postseason before playing
25 last Saturday. That pair limited Smits to two shots in the
final quarter and pushed him so hopelessly out of position that
he suffered the indignity of having one baseline jumper rejected
by the 6'2" Ward.
The Knicks then leaned on the one-on-one wizardry of Sprewell
and Houston, who had become suddenly more aggressive. By the
time the fourth quarter rolled around they were both well into
their shooting rhythm and were begging for the ball. Pull-ups,
post-ups, slashes into the lane--they all yielded good looks.
Sprewell (32 points) and Houston (28 points) combined for nearly
60% of their team's offense on 54.5% shooting, serving to
rekindle that great debate: Are the Knicks more effective
without Ewing? "When you take away our big guys, there's more
room to get to the basket," Sprewell says. "And when we've got
room, everything seems to come easier."
In the huddle Rose implored Bird to double-team Sprewell and
Houston, but his suggestions were rebuffed. "We have to turn
those two guys into playmakers," Rose fumed afterward. Asked if
the topic of doubling them had come up before, Rose said, "It was
a big item of discussion on the bus after we lost Game 6 last
Rose got his wish late in Game 4. But that only gave Ward an
opportunity he had long desired. "He'll hit those shots again,"
said Houston. "I love seeing all his hard work pay off. You've
got to wonder what the Pacers are going to do. It's getting
pretty hard for them to pick who to leave open."
Sprewell and Houston, but his suggestions were rebuffed.