This is the twenty-fourth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
Last week, I wrote about how the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks finished off the 1999 National Basketball Association (NBA) season with one of the more bizarre games you’ll see, with both teams going into the game hoping that they would lose, as the Heat wanted the Knicks to get the #7 seed and play the Pacers while the Knicks wanted to remain the #8 seed and play the Heat. Jockeying for playoff positioning is a somewhat standard practice, but it is a practice that could backfire spectacularly if you’re not lucky.
The 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets were not lucky.
We often speak about the idea of “star” players, about what makes one player a good player and what makes another player a “star.” Glen Rice’s career is a good example of this phenomenon. Drafted with the fourth overall pick by the Miami Heat, Glen Rice was a very good scorer for the Heat, but never made the All-Star Game. He famously did score 56 points in a game for the Heat in a nationally televised game against Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic, but hey, Willie Burton put up 53 in a game just two years earlier, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf put up 51 earlier in 1995, so that was not as big of a deal as you might think. Traded to the Charlotte Hornets as the centerpiece of the Alonzo Mourning deal, Rice proceeded to play just about the same for the Hornets as he did for the Heat, only now he made the All-Star Game in 1996. He did not even raise his scoring average (which is normally how players go from being viewed as a good player into being seen as a “star”). The next year, however, he did, indeed, begin to take more shots per game (while remarkably raising his TS%) and suddenly Rice was now cemented as a “star” in the NBA. He not only made the 1997 All-Star Game, he was the MVP of the game! You might remember the stories on Rice’s fiancée at the time, and how she urged him to be more aggressive and take more shots. Already a great perimeter scorer, Rice began getting to the line, as well (taking 2 more free throws a game), and he ended up averaging just shy of 27 points a game.
I bring up Rice because during the 1996-97, Rice killed the Knicks. You see, Jeff Van Gundy’s defensive plan for the Knicks was a “no layups” defense, and that often left the Knicks vulnerable to great outside shooters, and the Hornets had a pair of them in Rice and Dell Curry, plus young point guard, Tony Delk (who was drafted with a pick the Hornets got in the Mourning deal) who loved the three.
The Hornets went 1-1 with the Knicks in their first two meetings, but Rice did not play in the loss and he was still recovering from the injury that made him miss the first game when he played in the second (he came off of the bench in the Hornets victory). The Hornets were a team where two of their top three contributors were just added to the team that season (Vlade Divac and Anthony Mason), plus another starter (Tony Smith). That’s 3/5th of their starting rotation! Plus their back-up point guard, the aforementioned Delk. When you factor in Rice coming back from the injury to open the season, the team naturally started slowly (and no one was expecting much from the Hornets, really) but quickly gelled together and when they faced the Knicks twice in a 10 day span at the end of January and the beginning of February, they felt quite confident about how they matched up with the Knicks. In those two games (both Hornet victories), Rice went for 40 points and 34 points.
Coming into the last three games of the season, the Knicks were in a bit of a pickle. It is crazy how good the Eastern Conference was in 1996-97. You needed 44 wins to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. 60 wins would not be enough to win either of the divisions in the Eastern Conference. So coming into the last two games of the season, the Knicks found themselves one game up on the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets (and two up on the Detroit Pistons). If all three teams tied, the Knicks would be the #4 seed and Charlotte the #3 seed. The Knicks were to face the Pacers and the Bulls (in Chicago). The Hornets, meanwhile, had the Raptors and the Bucks.
The Raptors shocked the Hornets by defeating them on the 18th (Clifford Rozier started for that Raptors team, for crying out loud!) and the Knicks defeated the Pacers that night then won a thrilling victory in Chicago on the 19th (depriving the Bulls of their 70th win). So with the Knicks’ regular season now over, the Knicks had clinched the #3 seed. The Hawks had clinched the #4 seed. So all that was at play was who would be the #5 seed, the Hornets or the Pistons? The Hornets had a one game lead but the Pistons owned the tie-breaker. If the #5 seed won in the first round, they would face the Bulls in the second round. So going into the last game of the season against the lowly Bucks (32-49 entering the game), the Hornets seemed to have the #5 seed locked up…if they wanted it, that is.
Earlier in the day, the Pistons won an overtime game to give them a 54-28 record. The Hornets then went out and lost to the Bucks 120-100, raising a number of eyebrows around the league. The Hornets’ starters did play, but Dell Curry and Matt Geiger both took the game off, and after Rice’s 15 shot attempts, Rafael Addison (yes, the Rafael Addison!) had the next highest amount of shot attempts. Then Tony Delk. Rookie Malik Rose was as involved in the game as Anthony Mason. The Hornets trailed by 10 after the first period and then never looked back. After the game, Hornets coach Dave Cowens said, “‘I don’t think the guys cared one way or another. ‘We were kind of in between, whether we cared about winning this game and solidifying fifth place to play the Hawks, or just slipping one game and playing New York. I don’t think there was a great purpose.” That, though, is, in and of itself, a purpose, no? Buck Williams of the Knicks noted, “‘I’m not going to venture that far, but I strongly feel they wanted to play us in the first round. I’m sure they feel quite confident they can come in here and beat us. They beat us in the regular season, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t feel that way.”
Jeff Van Gundy, though, had this to say about the Hornets’ loss, which locked them into a #3/#6 match-up with the Knicks, “You never want to hope to play somebody, because you might get something you ask for and it might not turn out to be what you thought. But obviously, with how we played in the regular season, Charlotte was the worst of the matchups.”
Speaking of their match-up against the Hornets, Van Gundy went on to say that the Knicks had to be more physical with the Hornets (“be more physical” is something Van Gundy would go on to say a lot as the Knicks kept trading the guys from the Riley-era) “We’ve got to make them feel us. They did not feel us in but 2 quarters in the 16 we played them. We allowed them to play, pass and shoot and move. Everything was free and open. And if you try to get into a jump-shooting contest with them, they’re going to win the N.B.A. championship. They’re the best jump-shooting team in the league.”
Before the game, Van Gundy actually had T-Shirts made up stating, ”Make ‘Em Feel Ya,” quoting something John Starks would shout a lot during the game.
In Game 1, the Knicks actually defeated the Hornets without “making them feel them,” but by beating the Hornets at their own game! Allan Houston, John Starks and Larry Johnson combined for 9 threes as the Knicks pulled away in the fourth quarter (after a dramatic third-quarter collapse led to the Hornets tying the game entering the final period). Houston finished with 25 points, LJ with 20 and Starks with 19.
In Game 2, Rice showed up ready to drive, and drive he did, taking a remarkable 17 free throws on his way to a 39 point effort. However, after playing from the perimeter in Game 1, the Knicks re-found their big man, as Patrick Ewing scored 30 points to lead the Knicks to a 2-0 lead (Ewing actually got into a shouting match with Chris Childs in Game 1 because he felt he wasn’t getting the ball enough).
Up 2-0, the Knicks went back to Charlotte where they continued their hot shooting from behind the arc. For the series, the Knicks shot 26 out of 57, while the Hornets were just 19 for 51. Dell Curry and Ricky Pierce (who the Hornets had acquired at the trade deadline) each made one three apiece all series long, both in the Game 3 effort where the Knicks, who had been leading fairly comfortably all game (Rice scored 18 in the first half, but only 4 points the rest of the game), almost gave the game away in the final 85 seconds. First, Chris Childs turned the ball over with the Knicks up 6 with 1:25 to go. The Hornets scored to cut the lead to 97-93. On the next possession, Childs committed an offensive foul by knocking over Muggsy Bogues with just over a minute remaining. Pierce missed a shot, but Anthony Mason got the rebound. Ewing came in for a gigantic blocked shot, though, and the Knicks regained the ball with less than a minute to play and called a timeout, still up 97-93. On the next possession, the Knicks milked the clock, moving the ball effectively around the traps of the Hornets. Eventually, Charles Oakley fed the ball to Larry Johnson, who was wide open in the corner. Johnson took a second, almost as if just to savor the moment, then hit the wide-open corner three to put the Knicks up 100-93 with 44 seconds left, effectively sealing the victory and the sweep.
Like I said up top, be careful what you wish for, you might just get swept.
Thanks to Mike Wise for the quotes from the time!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!