The story of the Knicks storming their way into the NBA Finals during the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99 is well-known, but history always seems to brush right past the team’s second round sweep of the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, which was completed 20 years ago this week.
It’s not too surprising that history likes to overlook how the Knicks easily pushed past the Hawks in the Conference Semifinals, as the series’ against the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers that year were much more intriguing. Prior to playing the Hawks, the Knicks famously became the 2nd ever eighth seed to oust a one seed, besting the Heat thanks to Allan Houston’s glorious floater. After flying past the Hawks, the Knicks took down Reggie Miller and the Pacers in a series that included Larry Johnson’s finest shot as a Knickerbocker.
The games against the Heat and Pacers may have had more drama, but the series against the Hawks is when it became clear the Knicks had coalesced into a team that might cause some serious trouble that postseason.
The Hawks had finished the season 31-19 and were coming off a 3-2 series victory against the Detroit Pistons. The Knicks regular season record had been 27-23, but they were fresh off that Houston game winner, and the momentum showed. The Knicks got off to a hot start in game 1 in Atlanta, winning the first quarter 27-21. The Knicks would go on to win every quarter of that game, minus the second period, and the final score was 100-92.
Houston dropped 34 points and was significantly aided by Latrell Sprewell, who came off the bench to pour in 31. Patrick Ewing, who was already hobbled heading into the postseason and played a gutsy series against the Heat, notched 17 minutes of action, posting 12 points on 6-7 shooting and adding 6 rebounds.
In Game 2, Houston went cold, scoring just 2 points on 1-8 shooting, but Sprewell and others were there to pick up the slack. Spree scored 31 points again, and although no other Knick scored more than 12 individually, Ewing, LJ and Marcus Camby combined for 34. In the modern NBA that might sound pathetic, but consider that the final score was 77-70.
Game 2 also represented something of a coming out party for Camby, who had 11 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks, plus one vicious slam dunk over Dikembe Mutombo that had Knicks fans everywhere mocking the Mutombo finger wag.
Check out this video of that dunk in order to see just how much technology has improved over the last two decades:
Winning back to back games in Atlanta to begin the series was sweet, especially for Sprewell, who had been suspended for almost all of the previous season for that whole choking his coach thing.
”It’s been great,” Sprewell said, according to the CBS recap. “Back then, I didn’t think I would be in this position. It’s nice to win in the playoffs. I’ve not experienced that before. I hope it continues.”
The winning would continue when the Knicks went back home to Madison Square Garden for Game 3, another matchup that saw the ‘Bockers win every quarter en route to a 90-78 victory. NBA basketball was a different sport back then.
Game 3 was once again a collective effort, with no Knick scoring more than 17 points, but five putting up double figures. Houston and Sprewell led the way with 17 apiece, Camby contributed 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks, and LJ had 12 points. Who’s the other Knick that scored in double figures, you ask?
In one of his finest performances, Chris Dudley played 23 minutes off the bench and scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting. He added 12 rebounds and 2 blocks for good measure.
By this point, New York knew the series was likely coming to a much more abrupt ending than originally expected. In Game 4, the Knicks once again stormed ahead, winning the first quarter 25-18, and as the game went on the Hawks barely even put up a fight. By halftime, the Knicks were up 48-37, and by the time the game was winding down, fans were chanting the name of Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who that April had been close to being canned.
The final score was 79-66, which today could be a halftime score, and the Knicks once again gave a group effort. Houston had 19, Ewing had his best game of the series with 17 points and 9 rebounds, and Sprewell pitched in 11 points. Only two Knicks didn’t score a single point, as Johnson strangely shot 0-3 in 31 minutes of action, and Rick Brunson failed to post a point in his lone minute of playing time.
’’We never looked at our season like the wheels fell off,’’ Van Gundy said after the game, according to the New York Times. ‘’We were trying to get it right. We knew from day one, with as many changes as we made, it wasn’t going to work quickly. Thankfully, we did it in the nick of time.’’
In case you don’t remember just how unlikely it seemed for the Knicks to be stomping their way through the playoffs that year, this is the first sentence of the New York Times recap the day after the sweet of the Hawks had been completed:
The Knicks’ remarkable transformation from a team teetering near collapse a month ago to one with a chance to turn its season into something special continued last night as they emphatically claimed Game 4 to sweep the Atlanta Hawks and take this second-round National Basketball Association playoff series.
One might think there would be some kind of video available of the series between the Knicks and Hawks, and perhaps someone with more time on their hands can find some, but in keeping with the narrative that this series has been generally forgotten, video appears to be very hard to come by.
The decimation of the Hawks may be largely overlooked, but when it happened it was a wonderful reminder that when you’ve got a team loaded with talent, sometimes everything comes together at just the right time.
Now the modern day Knicks just need to load themselves with talent.