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 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!