Unsung Knick History – The Comeback That Saved a Season
This is the twenty-second 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.
When you look back upon the Knicks’ miraculous run to the NBA Finals in 1999, it is sometimes difficult to remember just how bleak things looked earlier in the season. On Monday, April 19th, the Knicks lost to the Philadelphia 76ers (on a last second miss by Patrick Ewing, one of seemingly 453 last second missed by Ewing that season), bringing their season record to 21-21, with 8 games left to play in the season. They were 1/2 games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hornets had just beaten them badly a game earlier and the Knicks had to face them two more times. The Knicks were also just a game ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Things looked bleak. Knick general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Jeff Van Gundy were set against each other. Knick President Dave Checketts sided with Van Gundy…at least temporarily, and demoted Grunfeld on April 20th.
Ewing finally hit a big shot in a dramatic win against the Hornets on Friday, April 23rd. After making the first free throw to give the Knicks a two-point lead with 40 seconds to go, Camby missed the second free throw but managed to retrieve his own miss. Ewing then knocked down an ugly runner over over Derrick Coleman to give the Knicks a four-point lead with under 30 seconds to play. So the Knicks moved a half game ahead of the Hornets for the #8 seed. Still, the Knicks’ next three games were on the road – the Miami Heat, the Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks.
When their game began against the Heat on Sunday, April 25th, the Knicks were tied with both the Hornets and the Toronto Raptors, with each team having the same 22-21 record. So to say that this game against their hated rivals, the Heat, would make or break their season, would not be saying too much.
And they would be playing without Patrick Ewing.
What happened next very possibly gave the Knicks the confidence they needed to face the Heat in the 1999 Playoffs. It was a game where, in the locker room after it ended, the Heat’s Tim Hardaway had to say, ‘This is about as bad as it gets.”
Read on to find out why it was “as bad as it gets”!
To get somewhat of an idea of how Jeff Van Gundy saw Marcus Camby during the 1999 season, just note that when the Knicks visited Miami earlier in the season, Camby watched it from the bench! Van Gundy did not see Camby as being able to keep up with the physical play of a typical Knick/Heat game. But now, with Patrick Ewing out, Van Gundy was forced to use him, and boy did he respond! But first, Van Gundy opened the game with Chris Dudley on Alonzo Mourning.
The Knicks’ strategy did not work out too well, as Mourning dominated in the paint, forcing Van Gundy to go with a lineup of Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby (with Thomas on Mourning). Meanwhile, while Mourning was scoring like crazy (27 points through three quarters, which would be about 159 if the pace was adjusted to the current Knicks pace) the Knicks failed to, as Walt Frazier would put it, have the knack. Allan Houston, in particular, had a brutal three quarters as he kept driving the ball wildly to the basket and kept getting stripped (he had five turnovers!) and when he chose to shoot, he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. A terrible 2 for 10 through three.
During the third quarter, the Knicks trailed the Heat by 20 at one point. They entered the fourth quarter down 16. With seven minutes remaining, the deficit was 13. But then things started to change. Thomas fed Camby for a beautiful dunk. Then Houston started actually hitting shots! The Heat, meanwhile, were floundering. Mourning only scored two points the entire fourth quarter. Thomas did not have a good game on offense, but the former Heat player (who was 0 for 4 during the game) was marvelous on defense. ”I didn’t score a field goal, did I?” That’s O.K. I just wanted to defend and defend hard. I wouldn’t say I got in Zo’s head. I just wanted to give him a different look and keep coming. When you get traded from a place, you’re really up to play.”
The Knicks finally, amazingly, got even with the Heat with just under one minute to go, as Larry Johnson hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 77 apiece (it gave Johnson 23 points – a season high). It was just the fifth three-pointer of the game for the Knicks, and just their second make.
Tim Hardaway, though, came right back with a potentially soul-crushing three of his own to give Miami an 80-77 lead. Now imagine the situation. The Knicks all season had been unable to get big buckets while trailing. Even Ewing’s big shot against Charlotte came with the Knicks up two points. Jeff Van Gundy even noted after the game, “We’ve lost a lot of games this year on last possessions.”
So down three, the ball was in Allan Houston’s hands, and just like he had been doing all game, he drove to the basket. This time, however, he did not turn the ball over. Instead, he made a beautiful pass to a streaking Marcus Camby (who was 6 for 9 for 12 points at the time) who dunked the ball and, in a large mental lapse (which he seemed to have a lot of when it came to big games against the Knicks), Jamal Mashburn fouled Camby. Camby made the free throw, knotting the score at 80. ”He earned his stripes today,” Houston said of Camby, and really, this game was the signifier that Camby was not “too skinny” to play against bruising teams like the Heat.
With the score tied, Hardaway attempted another back-breaking three. This time, though, it did not go down and the ball was loose. The Knicks had been beaten to so many loose balls against the Heat (especially PJ Brown) that there was almost a sense of impending doom when the ball got loose. However, Chris Childs snared the rebound and was (in another mental lapse) fouled by Brown.
Childs made both shots and the Knicks were now up 2 with 20 seconds to go. While Camby had certainly proven himself, Van Gundy still chose to go to Chris Dudley, as Kurt Thomas had fouled out of the game and Van Gundy was sure that the Heat would go to Mourning. In a nice show of camaraderie, Ewing grabbed Camby as Camby made his way back to the bench and told him not to take it as a slight.
The Heat did, indeed, work the ball into the low post with Mourning. Dudley had him totally bottled up, though, so Mourning was forced to pass. He whipped the ball out to Mashburn, but the ball went off of Mashburn’s leg. Childs once again go to the loose ball and the game was effectively over (earlier, Mashburn had also taken a bad shot that had led to the LJ three-pointer).
The Knicks hugged each other and celebrated like it had won a playoff game and not merely lifted their record to 23-21.
After the game, Hardaway lamented, “This is about as bad as it gets. To lose to a Knick team we had down by 20 and have them come back and beat us on our home court.”
The Heat coach Pat Riley noted, “‘We don’t recognize another team’s level of desperation. They’ve got great shooters on that team. They start pushing on us, shoving on us, and we don’t execute with force. We hope maybe we’ll get a call or maybe a shot will go in.”
The Knicks, meanwhile, were perhaps buoyed by the confidence of this matchup, knowing that they had a chance if they could just make the playoffs. They beat the Hornets in Charlotte on Monday, thereby assuring them of the tie-breaker over Charlotte. Toronto, meanwhile, fell apart down the stretch (losing something like seven in a row), so the Knicks had the playoffs locked up before the last game of the season!
A season that could have easily have been lost if they did not pull off one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent Knicks history.
Thanks to Charlie Nobles and Selena Roberts for their reporting on this game!
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 email@example.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!