"It's going to be ugly," Heat guard Tim Hardaway kept saying in
the days leading up to his team's Eastern Conference semifinal
showdown with the Knicks, but no one wanted to hear it. The
buildup focused on Miami coach Pat Riley's triumphant return to
New York, the city he spurned two years ago; on Heat center
Alonzo Mourning's rivalry with his Knicks counterpart and fellow
Georgetown graduate, Patrick Ewing; and on Riley's complex
relationship with his protege and Knicks successor, Jeff Van
"It's going to be ugly," Hardaway kept promising, but no one
wanted to talk about that. No, this was to be the sexiest series
of the 1997 playoffs, a ratings-boosting spectacular with so
many compelling subplots that it was nearly impossible to keep
them straight: Would Knicks backup point guard Charlie Ward
prove Riley wrong for benching him virtually his entire rookie
year? Would Hardaway try to show up New York's starting point
guard, Chris Childs, who was a more coveted free agent last
summer? Would Ewing, 34, continue to treat Mourning, 27, like a
pesky little brother? Would the head of every Knicks player,
addled by four years of Riley's mind-control, simply explode at
the sight of the slick-haired Svengali?
Few of these story lines developed into anything. The Knicks
rolled into Miami Arena on May 7 for Game 1 and--instead of
engaging in finger-pointing, in-your-face-Riles!
histrionics--walked out an 88-79 winner partly because the Heat
missed 13 of 31 foul shots. Miami bounced back in Game 2,
winning 88-84 partly because Hardaway scored 34 points and
partly because Van Gundy failed to have New York commit a foul
to get the ball back as the clock wound down with the Heat
leading by a point. (Miami forward Jamal Mashburn nailed a
game-clinching three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left.) There were
no fights, no ejections, no calls for revenge.
The series was unfolding along the lines Hardaway had suggested.
In Madison Square Garden for Sunday's Game 3, Riley was greeted
by a pedestrian round of boos. New York sweated out a 77-73 win.
The next night the Knicks won 89-76 and took a 3-1 lead (with
Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday in Miami) in a series of such
surpassing ugliness as to send even the most die-hard hoops fan
into a state of catatonia. "If you're looking for high-flying
dunks and whoop-de-doo, look elsewhere," said Childs after Game
3. "This is grind-it-out, banging, ghetto basketball."
That sound you hear? Cries of protest from urban playgrounds all
over America. With both the Heat and the Knicks playing Riley's
defense-oriented crawlball--pressing and double-teaming and
denying even a hint of a layup--the first three games
deteriorated into a classic Eastern Conference hackfest of
constant whistles and endless substitutions. "It's art when you
win," says Hardaway. "That's the only time." Each team's
shooting percentage sank below 40%. In Game 3 no Knick hit a
field goal in the final six minutes. (And New York won!) Miami,
which finished with the lowest single-game point total of any
Knicks playoff opponent since the advent of the 24 second clock,
scored just three baskets from the field in the fourth period.
"I've never seen a series where it's such a defensive battle;
you're not scoring a whole lot, just getting loose balls and
putbacks," said Knicks forward Buck Williams, a 15-year veteran,
after Game 3. "Some nights I don't know how we're going to score
enough points to win a game. You come to playoff series with
some of the best teams in the league, you're out there playing
and shooting, and you look up and the first-quarter score is
10-8. It's like a high school game."
In the early going the Knicks were the deeper, more tested, more
experienced team. Mourning conceded as much when he said after
Game 3, "We come out in the third quarter and we just lose
leads. I don't know what it is: lack of maturity, just not being
into the game at that time, relaxing? We've got to play 48
strong [minutes]." Too often, Miami established a firm lead only
to buckle when New York made its inevitable run. Too often,
Riley used words like "weakness" and "tentative" to describe the
Heat. "You can't take a step back against anybody," Riley said
after Game 3. "And that's what we did."
Too often, Mashburn or Miami guard Voshon Lenard or forward Dan
Majerle disappeared for long stretches. Lenard, whose hot
shooting was a key to Miami's regular-season success, finally
showed up and scored 22 points in Game 3, but he committed an
awful three-shot foul on Knicks guard John Starks with 2:42 to
go; Starks hit all three free throws to give New York its
Maybe Riley had it pegged before the series. Looking over his
Atlantic Division champions--none of whom has played on an NBA
championship team--Riley, who coached the Lakers to four crowns
in the 1980s, declared, "While these guys have done a lot of
winning, there's not one winner on this team."
Hardaway comes closest. Problem is, it's hard for a 6-foot guard
to win a playoff series by himself, and that's why the most
enduring image of these semifinals may have been that of
Hardaway launching a three-pointer with two seconds left in Game
3--only to see it smacked away by Ewing. The Knicks center, who
led both teams with 25 points and 11 rebounds, grabbed the ball
and screamed into the joyous din at the Garden. "My emotions got
ahold of me," he said afterward.
There was nothing unexpected about Riley's call on the final
shot; all fourth quarter he had run isolation plays for
Hardaway. When it mattered most, Mourning wasn't even in the
picture. "The bottom line is, I could've contributed a lot
more," Mourning said after finishing Game 3 with 14 points,
seven rebounds, five fouls and four turnovers. "I could've done
a whole lot more to help us win." That would have included
shooting free throws better: In the four games, Mourning was an
abysmal 17 for 36 from the line.
The Knicks, of course, weren't surprised. New York spent this
season gradually assimilating new acquisitions Childs, Williams,
guard Allan Houston and forward Larry Johnson, but the club had
faith that its superior bench (which got effective performances
from Ward and Williams), its varied weapons and its core of
veterans would wear down the Heat. "A lot of players on that
team don't have a lot of playoff experience, and we're fortunate
to have Patrick and [forward Charles] Oakley and John Starks and
me," said Williams. "Down the stretch, that's why we've been
able to pull out these wins. We haven't scored, but we still
know what to do defensively. If you don't have playoff
experience, it's hard to teach."
The Heat is learning this now. "We've got to do everything
right," Mourning said. "Everything has to be perfect."
Perfect? Don't bet on it. Nothing about Miami's play in those
early games gave off even a whiff of perfection. And the Knicks
have all the elegance of a wrecking ball crashing. Ugliest work
of art you ever saw.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In the down-and-dirty battle of mentor and protege, Ewing usually outdid the younger Mourning. [Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning on floor in game]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN For would-be scorers--here it's the Knicks' Johnson--the series was one dense thicket of defenders. [Larry Johnson and three Miami Heat players in game]