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Retro Recap: 1992 East semifinals Game 1: Knicks 94, Bulls 89

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The win that put Pat Riley’s Knicks on the map.

The night of May 5, 1992 featured a waxing crescent moon.

The No. 1 song in the United States was “Jump” by Kris Kross. Basic Instinct topped the box office. ABC ruled primetime TV with Roseanne and Home Improvement (useful to know the next time Tim Allen claims that “nothing ...pisses people off more than a very funny conservative.”). Tammy Wynette was hospitalized with a bile duct infection, if that does anything for you. We bid adieu to actor Ben Frommer, who passed away; he played Nacho “El Gordo” Contreras in Scarface.

The New York Yankees were less than a month away from drafting Derek Jeter. Future supermodel Hannah Davis, who would marry Jeter 24 years later, turned two years old that day, a day an estimated 370,730 babies were born. You know who else was born that day? The ’90s Knicks!

Welcome to Retro Recaps, the first in a series that recaps memorable games in Knick history. Today we’ll cover Game 1 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Knicks and the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were the defending champs and the favorites to repeat. After losing two of their first three games that season, they blitzed the league en route to winning 36 of their next 39. By year’s end they led the league in offense and were fourth in defense. Chicago swept the not-yet-hateable Miami Heat in the opening round, winning by an average of 18 points (this was a more civilized time, when the first round was a best-of-five rather than the sadistic best-of-sevens we trudge through today).

After a disappointing 1990-91 campaign that saw the Knicks finish below .500 and be destroyed by Chicago in an embarrassing first-round sweep, the organization hired Pat Riley to take over, one of only three good moves the team has made since its titles-winning heyday (the other two being drafting Patrick Ewing and retiring Ewing’s number). The Knicks spent most of 1991-92 on pace to win the division for just the second time since 1971, but collapsed the last few weeks, going 5-6 while the Boston Celtics won 15 of their last 16 to win a tiebreaker and take the Atlantic. New York fell to the four seed, forcing them to survive the Bad Boy Pistons’ first-round five-game death-rattle.

The consensus was that the Knicks had been forced to expend themselves to the brink in getting past Detroit, and that they’d be easy vittles for a Chicago team that had swept New York 4-0 during the season by 10 points per game. On top of that, the game was in Chicago Stadium, where the Knicks hadn’t won in five years. All the signs pointed to the Bulls winning. Interestingly, the Pistons — perhaps biased due to their hatred for the Bulls after four consecutive years meeting in the playoffs — felt differently.

“If the league allows them to, they’ll beat Chicago,” said Bill Laimbeer after the Knicks eliminated the Pistons. “The league would not allow us to play them the way they need to be played. Too much has happened between us and them. But they’re not going to be able to pin that ‘dirty-team’ label on the Knicks so easily because the whole country saw this series and saw that it was just hard, physical basketball, and that no one was trying to hurt anyone. If they let the Knicks play physically, you’ll hear the Chicago people throw their stuff in the newspaper. They’ll start to whine about how it’s not good basketball. I’ve said this over and over — Chicago’s a good team, not a great team. Just let the Knicks play their style against the Bulls, and see what happens.”

Quoth fellow big man John Salley, “I told Patrick Ewing ‘If they let you play the way you played against us, you’ll do all right.’” What did Salley mean? “Michael just gets the treatment. It’s obvious when you see it.” Bulls GM Jerry Krause two-faced his way to sounding both chill and paranoid.

“We’re concerned, sure,” Krause said in Chicago. “We’re concerned about it getting crazy. I’m sure [NBA vice-president] Rod [Thorn] will control it... I think if we play the way we play, clean and hard, then I think New York will play that way. But if they don’t, if they want to make a mugging out of it, then I would be concerned.”

Enough with the preamble. Here’s the video. Let’s get it on.

Gerald Wilkins opened the scoring by canning a pair of long twos, which if you ever saw him play meant he’d miss his next four (SPOILER: the original “Jordan Stopper” took seven shots the rest of the night, missing six). On the Bulls’ first possession they went to Bill Cartwright in the post. Ewing tried to jump in front for the steal and missed, Cartwright drove for a dunk and Charles Oakley hammered him with a flagrant foul that today might earn a suspension, but back then was barely remarkable. I’m not saying the old days were better, or that today’s players are somehow lesser because they’re protected from such violence. I am saying the next time you wanna compare Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or anybody from the last 10-15 years to Michael Jordan, maybe don’t?

Chicago didn’t score for the first two minutes, which felt like an eternity, probably ’cuz they’d averaged 31 points in the first quarter during their season sweep of the Knicks that season. Bulls coach and future Ron Baker Whisperer Phil Jackson called timeout just 1:30 into the action, meaning there’s at least one parallel between the winningest coach of all-time and David Fizdale.

Jordan didn’t score until midway through the opening quarter, which was a double blessing, given that the Bulls as a team opened missing eight of their first nine shots. Scottie Pippen picked up a second foul and was replaced by Cliff Levingston. You may not remember Levingston the player, but you may remember Cliff the hype man, the originator and proclamator of what would have been an unforgettable ‘90s Vine — if Vines existed back then.

Then Chicago got hot, hitting six in a row. Watching this game now, it’s striking seeing how much the NBA game used to be played from the inside out. There weren’t that many pick-and-rolls by either team at the start; every action stemmed from post-ups or isolations. Exhibit A: James Donaldson replaced Ewing for the last 1:15 of the opening quarter. On the Knicks’ next possession, they posted up Donaldson. James Donaldson, who took just 18 shots in 14 games all season for New York. But that was the rule back in the day. You’re tall? Here. Be our offense.

A John Starks 6-0 run off the bench gave the Knicks a bit of breathing room late in the first. The quarter ended on an interesting note: Xavier McDaniel missed a baseline jumper with 20 seconds left. Will Perdue Vanderbilt rebounded and tried to outlet, but it was picked off by Greg Anthony. Anthony could have held for the last shot of the quarter, but...

The Knicks led 25-16 after one, holding the Bulls to their lowest first-quarter point total all season.

The second quarter saw the Knick bench rise to the occasion, part of a first half where their subs outscored their counterpart’s 17-0. Ironically, the Knicks also bested the Bulls 6-2 on fast break points, which is not a thing anyone would have bet on.

Emblematic of the smash-mouth mentality even teams as athetically gifted as the Bulls fell into, at one point Pippen had Kiki Vandeweghe on him (for you youngins who need a translation, imagine Paul George being guarded by Kyle Korver). Pip could have taken him any time he wanted, but Cartwright and Scott Williams considered the post their birthright and robbed Pip of space to work.

At the half the lead was eight points, which was encouraging and concerning, since Chicago had been held below 40 points and yet was definitely still in the game.

The second half got going, and so did the Bulls. By the time Pippen hit a lefty hook off glass the Knick lead was down to two and Chicago Stadium was all stirred up. This felt like that moment where the underdog’s good effort is inevitably exposed as mere rising action, and here comes the fall. It felt like nice guys preparing to finish last (“nice guys” defined as “the team you root for”). It felt like a bunch of feelings, none of which feel good. But before they could came maybe my favorite Knick basket of all time, at least in the non-game-winners category.

Oakley looked to feed Ewing in the post, but the big fella couldn’t get position against Cartwright, so he jumped out and ended up taking the pass just in front of the arc. This was not where Patrick Ewing usually went to work (though there were occasional, memorable exceptions).

You would likely assume Ewing would pull up for the long jumper. Or go right and try to spin left, for a baseline turnaround. Or continue driving into the paint to throw up a little hook. What you’d never expect was for Ewing to go full Jamal Crawford.

John of Patmos wouldn’t have believed it. How sick was this move? Check out the Bulls’ bench after Ewing throws it down. Even they were in shock and awe... and they saw Michael Jordan play every night.

Greg Anthony, Starks and Anthony Mason all checked in shortly after. Despite Jordan launching into all-out hero mode mid-third quarter, Anthony enjoyed one of his more meaningful stretches of play as a Knick, hitting a three, a driving lay-up and a pull-up in transition, as well as finding McDaniel a few times off dribble penetration to keep New York in front. Though Chicago cut the lead to one a couple of times, New York weathered the storm and built a nine-point lead entering the fourth.

The endgame boiled down to Jordan and Ewing, back and forth, dominating. You ever look back in history and think people were just dumber than they are now? Like, how people didn’t wash their hands for most of human history, and would go right from wiping their bum after pooping (or not) to burying a corpse, to handling and cooking raw meat, to delivering a baby? When you watch old NBA games, it’s remarkable how teams straight up refused to double the opponent’s best player. Watch Jordan’s career game-winners. He’s almost always in single-coverage.

Then again, doubling MJ didn’t always work out, either.

And yet despite Ewing destroying the Bulls for most of the second half, Chicago repeatedly let him work one-on-one. Still, the big man was human, and so with the Knicks up five he went to the bench for a rest. New York’s next three possessions ended in the X-Man posting and missing, Starks missing a three and Wilkins missing a long two.

Ewing returned with the Knicks still up three, but the flow had been lost. On their first possession after his return, Anthony, guarded by Jordan, spent the whole set dribbling around before heaving a hopeless, contested three. On their next possession Ewing was demanding the ball, yet no one could get it to him. If you didn’t follow the Knicks that decade, let me tell you: there was a LOT of “JESUS! GET PATRICK THE BALL!” stretches, followed by a lot of not getting him the ball. Anthony missed another contested jumper, then the Knicks committed a 24-second violation on a set where Ewing never touched the ball once. Meanwhile, a beautiful driving layup by MJ capped a 13-0 Chicago run and put the Bulls up three.

The Knicks finally got the ball to Ewing; a Pippen double-team forced him to dish to McDaniel, who drew a foul. On the next possession, Mark Jackson found Patrick in a good spot near the paint and he scored. After Jordan’s fadeaway rimmed out, Ewing saved another doomed possession, canning a long jumper as the shot clock expired.

With just over two minutes left, Cartwright and Ewing — the one-time Twin Towers — got tangled up on the block, with Ewing ending up tossed to the floor. There was no foul call, ’cuz ’90s. The Franchise got up, got the pass, got Horace Grant running at him for a double-team, got his jumper off, got another bucket and got the lead back for New York, his fifth consecutive made basket. MJ used a Grant pick to get a switch with Mason, but Mason was a literal shadow defending people — you couldn’t shake him. Jordan found John Paxson open on the baseline, but Paxson missed.

I have never understood why, on literally every single possession of every single basketball game I ever watch, I’m locked on 8-second violations (back in the day, it was a 10-second violation, because everything was slower in 1992 except many people’s refusal to use condoms. I’m not hating. To each their own, if it’s consensual. If you like your sex to feel like something that doesn’t include a co-pay, I feel you). Perhaps it was born from the trauma that followed the Paxson miss, when he and Jordan combined to force Mark Jackson into a 10-second violation. The Bulls got the ball back, Jordan went baseline and drew a foul. However, he hit just one of two, leaving the game tied.

Starks missed a three, but McDaniel came up with the offensive rebound. Ewing took the entry pass from Starks in the exact same spot he got the ball before crossing Cartwright over in the third quarter. And then, with 33 seconds left in the game, #33 did this:

Down two, Jordan drove against Starks and got to the paint, but ran into Ewing, so he kicked out to Pippen, who missed his jumper. Guess who grabbed the rebound and hit both his free throws?

With 13 seconds left, down four, Jordan airballed a jumper — that’s right: a missed free throw AND an airball in crunch time. The only difference between Jordan then and LeBron now is there was no Skip Bayless to sacrifice integrity for $$ criticizing the G.O.A.T. of that era for being human (also interesting that down four, Jordan shot a long two rather than a 3-pointer, yet another reminder of how little teams valued the three then versus now).

Pippen converted the offensive rebound and the Bulls fouled Jackson, who missed the free throw that would have put New York up four. Guess who grabbed the rebound and hit both his free throws? 94-89. The Knicks won. An unforgettable rivalry was created. And what would become the longest-running era of New York Knickerbocker success (not the greatest, but the longest) was born.

Notes:

— Ewing’s line for the night: 34 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, zero turnovers. He scored 26 in the second half; the rest of the Knicks combined for 22.

— The Knicks won Game 1 because Ewing outplayed Jordan. He outplayed MJ a half-dozen times over their playoff history (Game 2 in ’89; Game 6 in ’92; Games 1 and 2 in ’93; Game 4 in ’96), a truth long airbrushed out of the sanitized “MJ = God” history. No, he couldn’t overcome the talent gap between the teams — Grant was CHI’s third-best player, and a long way away from Pippen at No. 2. On the Knicks, Grant would have been the second-best player.

The Knicks didn’t repeatedly lose to the Bulls because MJ > Ewing. They lost because CHI > NY. The Knicks’ fatal flaw wasn’t that Ewing was flawed or didn’t come up big enough in enough big spots. The only reason they were ever in position to even sniff a ring was because of how great he was.

— Look at Knick history from 1973-74 until now. Here’s how many playoff games they’ve won every year since their last title (bold-face numbers = the Ewing years): 5, 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 6, 0, 0, 0, 1, 5, 4, 0, 6, 9, 14, 6, 4, 6, 4, 12, 9, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 6, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.

Bernard King had one nice playoff run in ‘84. The 2013 Knicks were a weird little blip of success. That’s all, folks. Only two years earlier, Laker forward Mychal Thompson, Dad of Klay, said the following of the Big Fella after the two teams played: “He might be the best in the game right now. He and Magic [Johnson] are shoulder to shoulder.”

Does that sound absurd? I bet it does. But what if the Knicks hadn’t sent Seattle their first-round pick in 1987 for 74 games of Gerald Henderson Sr. and the Sonics’ first-round pick that June? That Seattle pick, #18, became Mark Jackson. The Knick pick was dealt to Chicago, who swapped it with Seattle as part of a slightly larger deal. The Sonics ended up with Bronx-born Olden Polynice, who was arrested five times over the course of his career. The Bulls selected Pippen.

What if the Knicks had paired Ewing with Scottie Pippen instead of old Kiki Vandeweghe? What if Jordan had been stuck with Olden Polynice? History undoubtedly would have looked vastly different. Different enough for #33 > #23? Maybe that’s not as far-fetched as we’ve been taught to think.

— Ewing’s performance in Game 1 was arguably one of the three best of his career, joining his Game 4 effort in 1990 vs. the Celtics and his Game 3 output that same year against Detroit. Has any Knick come close to this performance ever since? According to game score, a per-game statistic created by John Hollinger, the only Knicks to reach the same stratospheric level were Carmelo Anthony in Game 2 vs. Boston in 2011 and Bernard King’s stupid-fresh performances in Games 3-5 in the first-round victory over the Pistons and Games 4 and 6 against the Celtics in the second round.

— While Xavier McDaniel had a disappointing regular season in his lone year on Broadway, when the lights shone brightest in the postseason, so did he. X-Man was a consistent force on the offensive boards and in the paint, and Game 1 was no exception. Every time he scored at or under the rim, my head went right to Charles Smith. Maybe that doesn’t make me a good person. But it’s true.

— Haven’t mentioned the head coach yet ’cuz feelings are still conflicted all these years later, but man oh man. The feeling of seeing Pat Riley on the Knick sideline is one I never knew again until Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City three years ago. If the franchise had just given the man what he wanted, a dynasty could have been born. Instead, we’re left living in this dimension.

— Chicago made it a point to go to Cartwright often early in games. I wouldn’t mind the Knicks doing something similar with Frank Ntilikina this year. Frank may never be a focal point of the offense. But feeding him early means raising his engagement from the start. You wanna raise his confidence and his aggressiveness? Prime that pump, baby.

— How taboo were 3-pointers back then? The Knicks and Bulls took just 11 threes combined the whole game and made just two, both by Greg Anthony.

— Chicago’s first three-peat doesn’t get the love the second one does, pro’ly ’cuz too many of us are star-fuckers, and Dennis Rodman was a star and Horace Grant was not. But if you watched the 1991-93 Bulls, or take some time to do so, revel in the majesty of three doubleplus elite defenders. Like Don Giovanni, Chicago’s swarming, smothering full-court press was terrifying and wonderful to watch. Jordan and Pippen are renowned for their work on that end, but Grant was a four-time All-Defensive Second Team honoree. If you were ever chased from the bus stop home by Dobermans, as I once was, you have an inkling what opposing teams felt like just trying to get the ball up the floor, as well as why Anthony Mason was such a godsend in these games. Mase was a better ballhandler than most Knicks guards then or now, a major reason why he played 32 minutes in Game 1 vs. 16 for the far more established Charles Oakley.

— You know how some people pee a little when they laugh? I cum a little every time I see Ewing hit a turnaround fadeaway.

— TNT’s play-by-play man that night, Bob Neal, said “There are a lot of connections between these two teams.” He then proceeded to mention Phil Jackson’s playing career in NY, B.J. Armstrong setting his playoff career high for points in a game the year prior against the Knicks, Cartwright and Oakley being traded for each other four years earlier, Jordan’s average of 29 points per game against the Knicks in ’91 being the lowest series average of his career, and Will Perdue netting his personal playoff career highs of 16 and 10 against New York a year earlier. You’ve come a long way, NBA media.

— Over Chicago’s first-round romp over Miami, Will Perdue shot 69 percent from the field. Nice. Nice...

— TNT’s halftime show featured Ernie Johnson (some things never change) and Kevin Loughery (some things do).


I know this was a lot of words. Hopefully you’re well-rested after the Labor Day weekend and enjoyed this trip down memory lane. We’ll do it again someday soon, kiddos. There’s a crescent moon tonight. Whatever has been will be.