Michael Jordan stood in the way of the Knicks for most of the 1990s, but 25 years ago this week His Airness was off swinging at baseballs while the Knicks were busy beating the Bulls in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals before ultimately advancing to the championship.
Jordan’s Bulls had rattled off three straight championships and had eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs in four of the five previous seasons going into the 1993-94 campaign. But then, suddenly and without warning — perhaps due to a suspension that resulted from gambling? (#ConspiracyAlert) — Jordan retired to try his hand at baseball, leaving the Eastern Conference wide open for the taking.
25 years ago today the @nyknicks beat the #Bulls in game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) May 22, 2019
Ewing went for 18 points, 17 boards, 6 assists, and 1 block.
What a battle they had #MSG150 pic.twitter.com/tE5BUuq2N0
Behind Patrick Ewing, the Knicks saw that opening and sought to squeeze through it, winning 57 games and finishing the season as the second seed in the East, behind only Dominique Wilkins, Mookie Blaylock and the Atlanta Hawks. And yet, even with MJ out of the league, the Knicks found themselves in a familiar situation: facing the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Despite having lost the undisputed best player in the world, the Bulls refused to go down easily. Having won the third seed behind a stellar season from Scottie Pippen (22 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals), the Bulls were no slouches. After a lackluster effort in Game 6 from the Knicks (a 14 point loss), Game 7 had New York noticeably nervous.
The nerves didn’t go away too easily, especially after the Bulls held Ewing scoreless for the entire first half. But behind Charles Oakley’s 12 points and 10 rebounds (once a Knick, always a Knick?), the ‘Bockers went into the break up 38-37, which looks a lot more like a modern day first quarter score than a halftime score.
Ewing finally got on the board in the third quarter, but the Bulls stormed ahead, leading 63-59 with less than three minutes to play in the period. Back then, leads of all kinds were terrifying, unlike today when 20 point leads seem surmountable. With the game and their season starting to slowly slink away, the Knicks needed a rally.
They got one, going on an 8-0 run to end the third, capped off by a Greg Anthony three pointer from right in front of the Bulls bench with just four seconds remaining in the quarter, giving the Knicks a four-point lead heading into the fourth.
”That was one of the great moments I had [as a professional], in terms of what it meant, the magnitude of it,” said Anthony after the game, according to the Baltimore Sun recap. “Thank God it went for me.”
Hey modern NBA fans, remember defense? It’s what the Knicks were best at back in the day, and in the fourth quarter the team held the Bulls to just 14 points, never letting them come within closer than three. With six minutes to go, Ewing banked in a three to put the Knicks up 10, 80-70, and the Knicks and the MSG crowd truly began to sense that they were within range of finally vanquishing the beast.
“When Pat banked in that three I felt confident the game was meant for us,” Knicks point guard Derek Harper said after the game, according to the Baltimore Sun.
With the game decided, Ewing got to soak up the final 30 seconds from the sidelines. He marched back and forth with his arms raised to the ceiling, relishing everything — the crowd, the victory, and the conquering of demons.
The final score was 87-77, as the Knicks officially ended the Bulls reign atop the NBA (at least until Jordan returned and won three more consecutive championships, but that’s neither here nor there right now). Despite his paltry first half, Ewing led the way with 18 points (all in the final two quarters), 17 rebounds and 6 assists. Oakley finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds, including 11 of the offensive variety. Charles Smith, one year removed from a series of layup attempts we’d all rather forget, added 11 points, and John Starks had 10.
The Knicks would beat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals before going on to play the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, and records of what happened in that series should all be destroyed. The OJ Simpson car chase was a much more important moment for the country at large anyhow, so the NBA would be wise to categorize the Knicks as co-champions in 1994.
The Ewing-led teams of the 90s were competitive every year, and even though they never captured the elusive title, are still remembered fondly because of how hard they fought for the city, year in and year out.
Knicks fans value the fight, heart and work ethic those Knicks teams showed. Perhaps some day a modern day Knicks team will show that same fight, heart and work ethic, and we’ll remember them just as fondly as we do the Knicks of the 90s.
Here, relive Game 7 in its entirety via YouTube and pretend the last 20 years never happened: