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Monday, April 21, 2014

Unsung Knick History – Four and a Half Davids Beat a Goliath (Named David)

This is the 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, LJ’s 4-point play 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.

Today we look at an amazing 1995 game between the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs (a season after David Robinson was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player) where the Knicks defeated the Spurs in double overtime with a line-up of Herb Williams and four guards!

It was December 10, 1995, the Knicks came into the game at 14-5 under new coach Don Nelson. The San Antonio Spurs were 11-5. Charles Smith had a sore knee, so he was not available to play, but by this point, Nelson had already installed Anthony Mason as the starting small forward, so the lineup was the same as it was for the first 19 games; Patrick Ewing at center, Charles Oakley at power forward, Derek Harper at point guard and John Starks at shooting guard. The Spurs sent out a lineup of David Robinson at center, Sean Elliott and Greg Anderson at the forward spots (small and power, respectively) and Avery Johnson and Vinny Del Negro at the guard spots (point and shooting, respectively).

Before getting into the game, let me say a word about a Knick bench player during the 1995-96 season who would end up playing a major role in this game. Gary Grant was taken with the 15th pick in the 1988 NBA Draft by the Seattle Supersonics and was then dealt with a future 1st rounder to the Los Angeles Clippers for power forward/center Michael Cage (the Clippers then packaged that future first with Hersey Hawkins that very same day in 1988 to acquire Charles Smith from the Sixers). Cage was coming off of his epic 1987-88 rebounds-per-game title over Charles Oakley of the Chicago Bulls (Cage averaged 13.0277778 rebounds per game in 72 games while the Oak Man averaged precisely 13 per game in 82 games) and Cage served the Sonics well while Grant became a steady floor general for the Clippers for the next several years. Grant is actually second on the Clippers’ all-time assists leaders list. After his seventh season, however, Pooh Richardson had taken over as the starting point guard and the Clippers drafted Brent Barry in the 1995 NBA Draft (who they initially felt they could get to learn the point), so there was no room for Grant and he was released.

The Knicks had lost back-up point guard Greg Anthony in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft and were not fully prepared for second-year point guard Charlie Ward to take over as the primary back-up to Derek Harper, so the Knicks signed Grant. He played sparingly (he and Ward each averaged roughly 13 minutes a game, with Ward taking over as the primary back-up point by the end of the season). The Knicks let him go at the end of the season and after a year for the Miami Heat, he finished his career with four years as a back of the bench player for Portland (he played a total of nine games his last three seasons – in terms of minutes played, he played the equivalent of one NBA game, 48 minutes combined, in those three seasons).

But for one night in New York in December of 1995, Gary Grant had a night for the ages.

I’ve already gone on a super long tangent just to explain to you who Gary Grant is, but my last sentence made me think for a second – isn’t it funny how people will say, “I’ll tell my grandkids about this game,” but then 15 years later they probably don’t even remember it? I mean, if someone reminds them, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I remember that game!” but otherwise, the game is lost (or unsung, as it were). John Starks specifically said about this game, that it was “something to tell the grandkids about,” but I doubt Starks even recalls the game. Life is funny that way. Sorry, last tangent, I promise!

The game opened with a fairly evenly matched first period. The Knicks won the second period and entered the half with a six point lead. The Spurs came back in the third and entered the fourth quarter with a three-point advantage. David Robinson, meanwhile, was eating the Knicks frontcourt alive. The Knicks got hot in the fourth quarter, though, and Derek Harper, in particular, looked like the hero of the game when he hit a three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left on the game clock to give the Knicks a 103-100 lead. The Knicks fouled Sean Elliott as soon as the Spur small forward received the inbounds to prevent Elliott from attempting a game-tying three. Elliott made the first free throw and then intentionally missed the second, getting his own rebound in traffic as the ball went right through Patrick Ewing’s hands and then throwing up a high off-balance shot that miraculously bounced high off the backboard and through to tie the game as the game clock expired!

In the first overtime, the Spurs methodically went after the Knicks depleted frontcourt with Robinson and picked up foul after foul (Robinson shot 19 free throws, making 15 of them). Before the first overtime was over, the Knicks starting center and small forward, Ewing and Mason, had both fouled out. 37-year-old little-used back-up center Herb Williams was pressed into duty to hold down the frontcourt with Charles Oakley. The Spurs actually had a great chance to win the game at the end of the first overtime, but after former Knick Doc Rivers found Sean Elliott alone under the basket with a few seconds left on the clock, Elliott botched the easy layup with 1.4 seconds left, sending the game to a double overtime.

Then, amazingly enough, a minute and a half into the second overtime, Oakley, too, fouled out (Oakley, obviously, was guarding Robinson over Williams)!! Here, Don Nelson decided to play a bit of a mad genius and instead of using the little-used second-year 6 foot 8 inch forward Monty Williams to replace Oakley at power forward (Williams would average less than five minutes a game for the Knicks that season before being dealt to San Antonio later in the season), Nelson turned to…6 foot 3 inch Gary Grant! Yes, Nelson decided to guard David Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs with 6 foot 4 inch Derek Harper at the 1, 6 foot 3 inch John Starks at the 2, 6 foot 5 inch Hubert Davis at the 3, 6 foot 11 inch (and half-dead) Herb Williams at the 5 and Gary Grant at the 4!! Grant jokingly remarked after the game, “I had power forward. Hubert tried to switch with me, but I showed him my big guns.”

Amazingly enough, the 4-guard lineup worked well, as the Knicks kept the Spurs totally out of rhythm. Grant, in particular, shined, as the guard-heavy lineup became pressing the Spurs and getting turnovers. Grant had two steals while Harper had six, perhaps none bigger than one that led to a pass to Grant who got fouled in mid-air, double-clutched and still made the shot for a three-point play that gave the Knicks a 112-107 lead with under three minutes to play (as you can see, the extra period did not have a lot of scoring, as that was just the Knicks’ ninth point after regulation). The Spurs clawed back, of course, and with less than half a minute left, the Spurs were down only 1 point with the Knicks having the ball. John Starks, who had missed a couple of crucial shots at the end of the first overtime, scored 8 of his 25 points in the second overtime, none more important than the shot he took with 24.6 seconds left, as he broke past Sean Elliott on the baseline and threw up a floater over David Robinson to give the Knicks a three-point lead. After a Spurs miss, Starks would add two clutch free throws 13 seconds later to effectively seal the Knicks victory.

The Knicks won 118-112, despite 45 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocked shots from The Admiral. This night, the Davids took one from the Goliath.

Thanks to Mike Wise and Clifton Brown of the New York Times for their reporting of the game (and for the quotes)!

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.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

15 comments on “Unsung Knick History – Four and a Half Davids Beat a Goliath (Named David)

  1. Kikuchiyo

    Whoa Nellie! The screwy lineup is, of course, rather typical for Don Nelson. Mason wasn’t just starting small forward. Nelson was trying to make him POINT forward.

    Thanks for the story of this game (which, as you suspect, I can’t recall). It is easy to forget that Riley left so soon after the Finals appearance and that the team was still so loaded with the “glory” Knicks for Nelson’s brief tenure. That team was 15-5 after this game. Can barely remember what it was like to expect the Knicks to win every night.

    *wipes tear*

  2. d-mar

    A little off topic (but still Knicks history), MSG had a replay on last night of the Knicks-Pacers game 7 in 1994. I was at the game, but watching some of it again, the intensity level of both teams was amazing, every rebound and loose ball fought for ferociously, bodies all over the floor. Plus 2 Hall of Fame (and ultra-intense) coaches going head to head. And probably Ewing’s greatest game ever as a Knick – 24 pts. , 22 reb. (including an incredible 11 offensive) 5 blocks, 7 assists. I also forgot the Knicks were down 12 points in the 3rd quarter and came storming back with a delirious MSG crowd going bat-shit. Ah, the good old days…

  3. adrenaline98

    It’s funny how my memory serves me sometimes.

    I don’t recall this game at all.

    I do, however, recall Don Nelsojn being an awful Golden State coach the last few years (in particular, with AR). I recall him not giving a crap at all and throwing these last couple of seasons down the drain as long as he got his ‘most winningest’ title for a coach.

    And I certainly don’t recall him EVER STARTING 14-5 with the Knicks. I remember him being as awful as Stu Jackson (whose record I also don’t recall).

    I suppose we had a lot more expectations back then. A 14-5 start now would have me singing Eastern Conference Semi-Finals tunes as if the Knicks were back in the promised land.

  4. Nick C.

    I thought he had a decent record but Ewing forced him out b/c Ewing did not like the idea of the offense running thru Mason as a point forward rather than being focused around Patrick.

  5. adrenaline98

    d-mar: A little off topic (but still Knicks history), MSG had a replay on last night of the Knicks-Pacers game 7 in 1994. I was at the game, but watching some of it again, the intensity level of both teams was amazing, every rebound and loose ball fought for ferociously, bodies all over the floor. Plus 2 Hall of Fame (and ultra-intense) coaches going head to head. And probably Ewing’s greatest game ever as a Knick – 24 pts. , 22 reb. (including an incredible 11 offensive) 5 blocks, 7 assists. I also forgot the Knicks were down 12 points in the 3rd quarter and came storming back with a delirious MSG crowd going bat-shit. Ah, the good old days…  (Quote)

    Last night, 2 AM, right before bed, I decided to see if there was something interesting on MSG. There usually is something on whether it’s the Amar’e countdown, a classic ‘in 60′ replay, or just something about the Knicks.

    Man, I caught Ewing’s top 25 countdown. What I would give for a Ewing on the team right now. Despite having his flaws and criticisms, no one ever questioned his defensive intensity. It was followed by this Knicks in 60. I watched a few minutes of it before passing out, but what I immediately noticed was how incredibly loud and riotous the garden was the ENTIRE game. It brought back such a nostalgic feeling of my high school teeange years.

    To this day, I still recall the NBA on NBC tune and Bob Costas with the Knicks playoff runs.

  6. Z

    Great read Brian– even if this game lacked the historical importance of some of the other Unsung columns. Anyway to tie it in to events that happened later in the season? Like the game pumped up Herb Williams’ trade value so he could be dealt to the Raptors with Doug Christie, freeing up enough salary to sign Allan Houston? Or maybe San Antonio realized they needed even MORE size, and traded for Charles Smith a few weeks later, allowing the Knicks to absorb Larry Johnson’s contract?

  7. Z

    Nelson actually had a better winning% that season than Van Gundy did. He was just suffering from what Riley saw coming– an aging roster that hadn’t been upgraded. He tried to make them more offensively oriented after the grind-it-out Riley years. The roster wasn’t able to perform that way, though. Van Gundy re-instituted Riley’s philosophy, and though the results weren’t any better, he had the fortune of beating the historically great Bulls by 32 points for his first career win, then went on to sweep a pathetic Cavs team, and lose a respectable series to the Bulls. Then Grunfeld upgraded the roster, and Van Gundy was able to reap all the rewards that Nelson didn’t last long enough to enjoy…

  8. Z

    “Cage was coming off of his epic 1987-88 rebounds-per-game title over Charles Oakley of the Chicago Bulls (Cage averaged 13.0277778 rebounds per game in 72 games while the Oak Man averaged precisely 13 per game in 82 games)”

    That was epic. And since you bring it up, you should probably mention how Cage got .02 rebounds more than Oak. In order to win the rebounding title he needed 29 rebounds in the last game. He got 30.

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/198804240LAC.html

  9. Robert Silverman

    I saw the Nix-Pacers in 60 show too. The thing is, the mid-90′s ‘Bockers are always being held up as an example of pro basketball at it’s nadir — clutching, grabbing, ugly shots, etc.

    But to echo what’s been said above, while the style of play wasn’t aesthetically pretty, I can’t imagine a casual fan not loving the intensity of play, all-out hustle, and pure drama

  10. BigBlueAL

    This game plus winning in Seattle in OT in January were the highlights of the Don Nelson Era.

    One thing that sucks about living in Miami and not having DirecTV (have Comcast instead) is that I obviously dont have the MSG network and cant see all these great old-school Knicks stuff like was mentioned above. Thankfully I have been able to find and download a bunch of Knicks playoff games from the 90′s on the internet and when Im bored I just watch them since I have many of them saved on my laptop. Great memories obviously plus the biggest thing as someone mentioned above is the atmosphere in the Garden during these games plus just the overall intensity is something I truly miss.

  11. Brian Cronin

    even if this game lacked the historical importance of some of the other Unsung columns.

    Just to not give a false impression, this column has always intended to feature memorable games as well as events and decisions (I even say “games, events and decisions” in the opening). I probably should have gone to a game earlier to not give people the wrong idea!

  12. massive

    @14,

    Apparently he injured it in a win against France earlier this month, and he’s dying to play. I hope he can play, experience at the international level should help develop his game.

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