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Original Issue

Knick of Time

Fresh blood may be fueling New York's postseason roll, but when the Knicks need a basket, they still call on old reliable, Patrick Ewing.

If he weren't so racked with pain, Patrick Ewing might have viewed his sorry state as comical. Can't you just see this on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update? Colin Quinn makes a crack about the ancient New York Knicks' center enduring the physical play of the Indiana Pacers, while in the background there's a photo of Ewing, who is so completely packed in ice that he resembles a giant specimen from an Antarctic archaeological dig.

But it was no joke to see Ewing sitting at his locker on Sunday night, 20 minutes after New York's gritty 93-90 win at Indianapolis in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, wincing as his left shoulder was iced and wrapped, looking like some flamethrowing southpaw who had just hurled a complete game. There was another ice pack strapped to his surgically repaired right wrist, which stiffened so badly earlier this season that he doubted it would ever mend. Of course, both knees, chronically creaky and arthritic, were swathed in bags of ice. The ice pack on his right hip? That was to treat a bruise he had sustained hours earlier. As a last immobilizing touch, Ewing had both feet jammed into a trash pail of icy water to relieve his aching left Achilles tendon, which leaves him gimpy even on his best days and keeps him in street clothes on his worst.

This litany of ailments is why Ewing was so often left for dead this season. That was a mistake, just as it was to dismiss the Knicks, who are in the throes of a revival more riveting than any on Broadway. Not only did the Ice Man cometh to play on Sunday; he also stole home court advantage from the Pacers by controlling the game in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, something Ewing's numerous detractors claimed was no longer possible. "I'm all banged up," Ewing said with a feeble smile after scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 40 minutes. "It's the Achilles that's giving me the most trouble. There's nothing I can do about it right now. They think I might have torn a muscle or something down there. What I need is to rest it for about eight weeks. I told them I'll do that later."

Just two months ago the notion that Ewing and the Knicks would be busy with anything but their golf games when June arrived seemed ludicrous. They were the bickering, dysfunctional band of malcontents who were teetering on the brink of lottery land, dragged down by a bloated payroll of self-involved stars who couldn't—or wouldn't—share the basketball. They were stuck in a rut the size of the Grand Canyon, pounding the ball into Ewing, then standing around murmuring disapproval while he clanged enough jumpers to wind up shooting a career-low 43.5%. As the cries to de-emphasize Ewing's role grew louder, coach Jeff Van Gundy stubbornly left the ball in the hands of his battered warrior, knowing full well it could cost him his job.

Then nature intervened. Ewing, in agony from the jolting pain in his heel, was forced to miss a total of 12 games in March and April. Out of necessity, Van Gundy opted to go up-tempo, relying on a younger, more athletic unit that featured 6'6" Latrell Sprewell creating baskets in the open court, forward Marcus Camby igniting the fast break with his shot blocking, and shooting guard Allan Houston providing the finishing touch from the outside. It was the lineup that former general manager Ernie Grunfeld had envisioned in the off-season when he acquired Sprewell from the Golden State Warriors and Camby from the Toronto Raptors, in trades for two of the most popular Knicks, John Starks and Charles Oakley, respectively. By mid-April, when those deals still had shown no signs of paying off, Grunfeld was demoted. More heads were scheduled to roll—up next was Van Gundy's—as soon as the underachieving team was bounced from the playoffs.

Still, Van Gundy held doggedly to his beliefs, among them that Sprewell best served New York as a sixth man. Spree is no happier coming off the bench now than he was in March, when his agent griped to the press about Sprewell's status, but he's come to understand that those are matters to be settled when this improbable run is over. Teammates confide that Sprewell's relationship with Van Gundy remains strained but workable, which should surprise no one. There's nothing harmonious about these Knicks. Yet when they share a goal—like winning—their differences have a way of dissipating. Forward Larry Johnson, the team's leader in the locker room, hasn't complained at all about his reduced role, which includes defending everyone from shooting guards to power forwards, making rapid-fire decisions out of the double team and coming off the floor six minutes into every game for Sprewell. "At first I didn't like coming out," says LJ, "but when I saw the lift Spree gave us, I realized it was worth it. He's a hell of a weapon."

"It's all about fighting through adversity, and that's something we've done all year," Sprewell says. "I've been through a lot the last couple of years. It kind of prepared me for what we're going through now."

Even when Sprewell's unwillingness to pass was a problem, his most ardent foes acknowledged that he gave the team an electricity that didn't exist when New York was dumping the ball into a laboring Ewing on the block. Sprewell's presence proved to be, at times, overwhelming for players like Houston, who clearly deferred to his infamous backcourtmate when the two were on the floor together. Houston, the son of a coach, was the anti-Spree: controlled, conservative, respectful of the game. Choking a coach? Unimaginable. Van Gundy assured Houston that he could thrive with Sprewell on the floor, but that was a realization Houston had to come to on his own.

"The thing about Spree is, he's going to come in and play his game, and he's not going to change for anybody or any situation," says Houston. "The way I've always played was not to force things. I let the game come to me. But my role is to put the ball in the hole, and I need the ball to make that happen, so I stopped waiting for someone to give it to me. I became more selfish in an unselfish way."

By the time Ewing returned from his Achilles injury, on May 8, Sprewell and Houston were accentuating each other's strengths instead of exposing each other's weaknesses. In turn, Camby, who also thrives in an up-tempo pace, was playing with confidence, as if he finally belonged. In this new scheme Ewing knew that he, too, would have to adapt. He could still establish the inside presence that is so critical to postseason success, yet he also needed to be satisfied with a secondary role when the young Knicks pushed the ball. "Now Patrick realizes he doesn't have to battle for post position every time down," Houston says. "Spree can penetrate. I can penetrate. Patrick can have easy 10-foot shots. He realizes there are different ways he can be effective."

"You need to be able to play both styles if you are going to win a championship," Ewing says. "It's not about shots or points. Just give me the ring. That's all I want."

The bottom line is that New York is running, passing, filling the lanes, trapping the baseline and, most important, finding new ways to win games. As the final days of the truncated regular season ticked off, the Knicks squeezed into the eighth and final playoff spot and vowed to make their doubters pay, beginning with the archrival Miami Heat. Five games later the stunned Heat was tossed into the postseason scrap heap, while the giddy Knicks forged ahead, sweeping the Atlanta Hawks and reveling in having reinvented themselves as the team nobody wanted to play.

Nobody, that is, except Indiana star Reggie Miller, who has made a career of slaying the dreams of Ewing and his Knicks teammates with big-time, heartbreaking shots. New York took some solace in knowing that neither Houston nor Sprewell was around when most of those disappointments occurred. Before the series started, Van Gundy contended that Miller flopped to draw fouls, pushed off to receive the ball and was the beneficiary of not-so-legal picks. Told that the Knicks wanted a piece of him, Miller merely smiled and warned, "Be careful what you wish for."

The Knicks, who were swept at Market Square Arena in the playoffs last year, figured their best shot at stealing this one was to deny Miller the ball and dare the other Pacers to beat them. Sharing the offensive wealth is what Indiana does best, but the Pacers' unbeaten streak of seven postseason games was snapped because valuable reserves Jalen Rose and Travis Best continued to struggle offensively, and center Rik Smits, slowed by his chronically inflamed feet and a broken left toe, continued to have difficulty planting and pivoting in the post. While six days of rest before the opener rejuvenated Ewing, a week off did little to revive Smits.

Still, Indiana coach Larry Bird insisted he would go to Smits, regardless of his physical status, recognizing that a demonstrable low-post threat would open up more perimeter opportunities for Miller and Chris Mullin. But with Smits ineffective, Miller, who had been averaging 23.7 points in the postseason, was limited to 13 shots and only four three-point attempts while battling myriad traps and double teams. He finished with a quiet 19 points—a total matched by Houston. With 4:02 left in the game, Miller knocked down his lone three-pointer to give the Pacers an 81-79 lead and deliver a wake-up call to the capacity crowd of 16,575 in Market Square. Two months ago a dagger like that would have killed New York's spirit. "But our confidence level is much, much higher now," Houston said after the game.

Ewing, aching to prove he could still be the Man, now had his chance. He drew the foul-plagued Smits into the paint with 2:09 left, coaxing in a jumper that cut the lead to three. After a defensive stop, Van Gundy ran an inbounds play he hadn't used in weeks that both freed Houston off a screen underneath and lured Smits into picking up his sixth foul on the switch. Houston hit both free throws, then Ewing knocked down four in a row from the line to put the Knicks up 90-88 with 29.4 seconds to go.

Naturally, Indiana went to Miller, but his three-point try was thwarted by Houston and Ewing, who lunged out to double team. "The guy is unbelievable," New York point guard Chris Childs said of Ewing. "He's playing out there on no legs, but that's why he's our leader. It says so much about his heart and his desire and his will to win."

There's no denying that the Knicks' resurgence coincided with Ewing's playing a reduced role. If New York had stuck with its old half-court, post-oriented style, it never would have gained the 22-8 edge in transition points that it did in Game 1. Yet, when the Indiana defense shut off the passing lanes and the Knicks' shooters saw the Pacers' hands in their sight lines, New York turned back to Ewing, old reliable, as he jockeyed for his customary position on the left block, always ready and willing to take responsibility for the last shot. "Every [critical Ewing] miss has been well chronicled," says Van Gundy, "and every make has been overlooked. Yes, Patrick has missed some. You know why? Because he takes them."

Perhaps that is why the proud center, who will turn 37 in August, and his proud coach, who turned 37 in January, are so hell-bent on fighting through the criticism together. Team president Dave Checketts confessed last week that he had interviewed Phil Jackson in April about the Knicks' coaching job and then had lied to the media and Van Gundy about it, prompting Ewing to vow that he would not play for anybody but his current coach. "We don't need Phil Jackson," Ewing said. "I don't want Phil Jackson."

Teammates claim Ewing's affection for Van Gundy goes beyond the obvious benefits of having retained his favored offensive status for so long. "When you're a friend of Patrick's," says center Herb Williams, "that's forever."

Yet trust must be earned with Ewing, especially if you're a teammate. During the NBA lockout the newly acquired Camby, who had developed a reputation for being soft, worked out at the same health club as Ewing. Each day he waited for a word of encouragement or a friendly gesture. Most days he got neither. "It wasn't until the first day of training camp that he said much of anything," Camby says. "He walked up to me and said, 'You're with us now. Forget about the trade. You're who management wants, so let's get the job done.'"

The Knicks did just that on Sunday. Still, Ewing knew Indiana would be gunning for him for the rest of the series. He knew Miller was not likely to remain in the background; as Childs put it, "Guys like him always have their say." But now that Ewing had made a statement of his own, maybe his teammates would pick up the slack. At this juncture he could use some help. "My guess," said Van Gundy after Sunday's win, "is that's the healthiest he'll be."

Ewing, still packed in ice, laughed weakly at that cold truth. "It isn't easy," he said. "My guys know how bad I'm hurting. People are doubting me, but when I'm healthy again, they'll see."

The big man conceded that they will not see until next season. By then the Knicks may have a new roster, a new offense, a new coach, a new set of subplots and conflicts. "I don't know what's gonna happen," said Ewing, "but I know what's happening now. Everybody buried us, and here we come, right at you again."