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Retro recap, 2000 semifinals Game 7: Knicks 83, Heat 82

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The last charge of the black & blue & orange brigade.

Susan Knowles UPI

Six months ago saw our first retro recap, Game 1 of the New York Knicks’ 1992 Eastern semis against the Chicago Bulls. That game was essentially the birth of the ‘90s Knicks. With tonight’s New York/Miami game canceled and the rest of the season on indefinite lockdown, let’s look back to May 21, 2000 and the end of that era’s glories: Game 7 of the Eastern semis versus the Heat.

That week Dinosaur replaced Gladiator atop the box office. “Maria Maria” by Santana and The Product G&Be topped the charts. The internet was definitely a thing, though not The Thing it is now, and it was still early enough in its primoridal ooze that people thought Alta Vista was its future.

That day the world lost the wonderful actor John Gielgud. I knew him as Aaron Jastrow from Herman Wouk’s War & Remembrance (mini-series were a thing TV used to do that we now call “Netflix.” Only you couldn’t stream them, you had to wait a week, something we’ll also soon call “Netflix”). An intellectual Jew murdered at Auschwitz, in dying and then death Jastrow re-connects with his heritage. In 10th grade English we had to memorize and recite a passage from a book. I chose Wouk’s pages describing Jastrow’s ashes floating to eternity; had time permitted, I’d have chosen this speech to his fellow concentration camp prisoners at Theresienstadt.

A day earlier, Malik Sealy, 30, the Timberwolves’ wing who hailed from the Bronx and attended St. John’s, died in a car accident. A smooth operator and gifted defender, Sealy had an unforgettable hitch-kick action on his jumper and an affinity for baseline baskets.

The Mets treated Mike Hampton to a preview of Jacob deGrom’s career, turning an 8-0 laugher into an 8-7 nailbiter that Sir Alex Ferguson would have called “squeaky bum time.” The real Pedro Martinez won his third Cy Young Award in four years after going 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and 284 strikeouts. The “next” Pedro was the South Bronx’s Humberto Sanchez, a 17-year-old fireballer the Yankees would acquire years later in the Gary Sheffield trade to Detroit.

WFAN was in turmoil (some things never change). Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became an enormous success, leading real estate developer and neo-Nazi Donald Trump to project both insecurity and delusion by claiming: “Regis Philbin has done an amazing job with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I’d do the show if they wanted me to! I’d give the money to charity.” Imagine if the fate of the world depended on building a time machine and going back to the spring of 2000 to tell Regis Philbin he had to let Donald Trump take over his game show. James Cameron seems trite as hell.

That season the Heat won the Atlantic division with 52 wins, two more than the Knicks. The East’s two-seed was led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning, Jamal Mashburn and Tim Hardaway Sr., who at 33 was near his last legs but still had enough jimmies to cross fools over or pop pull-up 3s on them. Though only 24th in scoring, the Heat were top-10 in three-pointers attempted and both 3P% and 2P%, and they led the league in defensive rebounds. After being knocked out in the first round in 1998 and 1999 by New York, Miami was nearing the end of its Mourning/Hardaway/Riley run, and sought their first Eastern Conference finals since their 1997 asterisked appearance.

The Knicks featured Patrick Ewing in his New York swan song. The Big Fella was still a force on the glass and in the paint, but the scoring torch had mostly been passed to Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. Despite ranking 27th in scoring, the Knicks were top-five in both 3P% and free-throw percentage. Their strength, same as it ever was, was the defensive end. They led the league in fewest baskets allowed and fewest two-pointers against, were second in points permitted, third in opponents’ FG% and assists, fourth in field goal attempts allowed and fifth in opponent’s 3P%. Plainly put, the Knicks didn’t let teams get off that many shots, and the ones they did get off didn’t tend to hit. New York was nearing the end of the Ewing era; the defending conference champs hoped to meet Indiana in an ECF rematch.

The 2000 semis were the fourth year in a row the Knicks and Heat met in the postseason. If you weren’t alive or paying attention then, you may think all the historical hype about this rivalry is a bit much. It ain’t. Over four series and 24 playoff games from 1997-2000, New York outscored Miami by 1.5 points per game. The 2000 series was even tighter, with only four points total separating the teams over seven games. The teams alternated wins over the first six games. Game 6 saw the Knicks fall behind by 18 shortly before halftime; the conversion rate for Knick/Heat games meant an 18-point gap was like 30 in any other game. The Knicks staged an astonishing comeback to force Game 7, holding Miami to just 25 second-half points.

These series were defensive master classes or slogs, depending on your bias. In all seven games at least one team failed to score 85. Only once did either break 90. Game 6 ended 72-70, with the Knicks’ 42-point second half feeling like an explosion. But head coach Jeff Van Gundy rejected the idea that New York had momentum on its side.

‘’Going into this, we knew it would be hard fought, and the likelihood was that it would go the distance,’’ Van Gundy said after a walkthrough the day before Game 7. ‘’We knew coming in the series we’d most likely have to win two games on the road. And that’s where we’re at.’’ Van Gundy worried about the dual energy drains of the players mounting such a furious comeback and dealing with the death of the well-liked Sealy.

‘’I hope our team — and they’re a little bit discombobulated after last night and also there’s Sealy’s death — well, hopefully, by tomorrow they’ll be excited, energetic and ready to go,’’ he said. ‘’I think we’re a little tired right now. We had a late night — plus mentally it’s been a tough, long series — but I also think, you know, players are very close. I think it’s very difficult for players when something like this happens. In their eyes, they know what happened to Sealy could have happened to them. I think it’s difficult, and I feel for them.’’

There’s your big-picture picture. Let’s get down to brushstrokes.

There was a tortoise/hare thing going on in this one between Mourning and Ewing. The younger, faster Zo got off to a fast start, opening the scoring with a little baseline floater, then shortly after blowing past Ewing for a dunk. A few minutes later Mourning threw down another throwdown. Throughout the first, when he poured in 14 points, Mourning was scoring at will in the paint. Meanwhile Ewing looked creaky and obsolete and set to justify Bill Walton and Steve “Snapper” Jones talking about him as if he’d just sat up out of a coffin.

The Heat went up as many as 11, ending the quarter with as many points as they’d scored in the entire second half of Game 6. Free-agent-to-be Kurt Thomas was tasked with guarding Mourning as the second quarter got underway. Thomas had been vocally displeased with his limited minutes in the series and did not soften his tone before Game 7. ‘’I haven’t played in the second half the last two games,’’ he said. ‘’What the heck is [Van Gundy] saving me for?’’ Right away Thomas was called for a foul on Mourning and a technical foul for shoving him. Pro’ly not what Van Gundy was saving him for.

The Knicks were mostly taking shots they didn’t want. Exhibit A: Chris Childs dribbling into a spinning fadeaway. Exhibit B: Childs dribbling seemingly aimlessly for 10 seconds, then having to create his own look. Exhibit C: Houston and Spree forcing up contested pull-ups late in the shot clock. Meanwhile Miami was getting cleaner looks from midrange and deep: Mashburn had multiple open three-pointers and P.J. Brown was surrounded by free space as he hoisted from 15 feet. The only Knick with the knack early on was Sprewell, who scored 14 in the second quarter and 20 for the half. He had half of the Knicks’ first 36 points. But he got a bit banged up after tangling him feet contesting a Bruce Bowen three-pointer and tumbling into a camera.

NBC color analyst Bill Walton said Pat Riley should play Mourning 48 minutes. He didn’t, and it’d cost him. As soon as Zo was benched in the second Sprewell got to the rack for an and-one and the Knicks went on a 9-2 run, re-taking the lead midway through the second after a Sprewell 3. Even when he missed, he was getting to the hoop and setting up putbacks for the Knick bigs.

The Knicks came out hot to start out the second while Miami was missing seven of their first eight shots. The Knick defense also tightened up: Mourning was only able to get off one shot in the quarter, one reason the Heat were held to just 14 in the frame. A 9-0 run to close the half put the Knicks up six at the break, their biggest lead at the half all series. A Spree baseline jumper at the start of the third saw New York go up eight, practically a blowout in this rivalry.

Ewing looked better on both ends, too.

The block on Mashburn may have been a bigger deal than it seemed at the time. He’d just hit from deep and was looking to heat up. Mashburn led Miami in minutes in this series (43.3 per game) and was the only Heat player besides Mourning to average in double-figures. But he did so on 36% shooting. The key difference between these teams as the rivalry raged on was that in Sprewell and Houston, the Knicks had two All-Star caliber players who could complement and eventually succeed Ewing as hubs in the offense. Hardaway was not at that level in 2000, and Mashburn had never been able to fill that role under Riley. Mourning was a great defender, but never a great scorer. You weren’t going to top the top teams needing Zo to get you 30 a night. In 1997 Hardaway was still there, but by 2000 he was 33, dangerous in bursts. In Game 7 he hit three of his first four, then managed to make just three of his last 16 shots.

A Hardaway 3 keyed an 8-0 Heat run to pull ahead, along with a 3 by Dan Majerle and buckets from Mourning and Brown. The Knicks were in one of their famous scoring droughts, and as was the case for most of their droughts, when the rain finally came it took the form of a bad-ass Jamaican man.

There was narrative beauty to Ewing’s play in the third. He scored 10 in the quarter, but it wasn’t the traditional case of the big man taking over one-on-one. His teammates kept setting him up, finding him moving off the ball rather than feeding him in the post and watching him go to work. If the Knicks could have surrounded Ewing with similar talent earlier in his career, there’d be a third championship banner up in the rafters. Instead we’re stuck with Charles Oakley being labeled a Knick “legend.”

Late in the third Larry Johnson was whistled for a foul on Mourning and got a tech for complaining about it. Charlie Ward tried to settle him down and Johnson shoved him away. After LJ was benched the cameras caught him sitting on the floor repeatedly saying “Fuck you” to somebody in the distance. For whatever reason, all this sparked the Heat, who went on a 14-3 run after the T to go from five down to six up early in the fourth.

Then, a miracle. Two miracles. First, the Heat kept missing free throw after free throw after free throw. Mourning was especially askew, shooting 71% from the line that season but missing half his 10 attempts in this one. Clarence Weatherspoon and Otis Thorpe also missed a pair each. Meanwhile, the Knicks took 31 free throws and made 28.

The second miracle was Chris Childs, the pride of Bakersfield, California, acting as the Knicks’ lighthouse. When no one else could score a basket, Childs kept the Knicks on track, guiding them toward a chance to win late. For the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, no Knick scored besides Childs. He hit a driving lay-up and-one, then drove and finished over Mourning. After a pull-up high off-glass over a tumbling Anthony Carter, Childs had scored 12 in a row for New York. Ewing picked up his fifth foul with 6:00 left and had to go to the bench with the Knicks down 3. It could have gotten away from them then. Instead, Childs kept on keeping on, so by the time the Big Fella returned the gap was only four. He scored 10 points in the final quarter; the rest of the Knicks scored just eight.

With 4:40 left, Hardaway hit a 3 to put the Heat up 79-73. For the next 190 seconds, Miami would not score. In that time the 6’10” Mourning settled for a baseline fadeaway over the 6’6” LJ and missed; Mashburn missed a driving runner; Mourning missed another baseline fadeaway; Mashburn missed another runner; and Weatherspoon bricked a pull-up over Ewing. While that was happening on one end, the Heat were over the foul limit and kept sending the Knicks to the line courtesy of dumb fouls. After Childs came down with an uncontested defensive rebound Brown bumped him. Johnson, who went nearly the whole game scoreless, was fouled by Mashburn while trying to establish post position. Then Brown bumped Sprewell on a baseline screen. Those fouls gave New York six easy points, nurturing an 8-0 run and allowing them re-take the lead.

But Knicks/Heat was never a straightaway; it was always chutes and ladders. With 1:30 left, Mourning set a pick on Childs and LJ casually turned and jogged toward the basket, leaving Hardaway open from...well, straightaway.

So the Knicks were down one. The season and indeed an entire era had its back up against the wall, its throat under Miami’s foot, whatever violent cliche you prefer. Yo, hare. Remember the tortoise?

Oh. My bad. That dunk was from another game entirely. I apologize. It’s not like I enjoy that dunk so much I slipped it in here even while knowing it wasn’t from Game 7. I wouldn’t do a thing like that.

Our first retro recap featured the birth of the ‘90s Knicks, which arguably began with their Game 1 upset of the Bulls in 1992. In that game the Knicks led most of the way, but Chicago made their expected big run in the third. They cut the lead down to two and it felt like only a matter of time before they went in front. But in the heat of the moment, Ewing delivered.

Now at the end the last sustained run of success this franchise has known, facing down their bitterest rival, down one, everything was at stake. And Ewing delivered.

Those were the last points of the famed Knick/Heat rivalry. After that, Mashburn missed a fadeaway. Childs turned it over. Hardaway missed again. Mourning and Sprewell got tied up. Zo won the jump ball; after Miami used their last timeout and he was doubled by Ewing and LJ he kicked out to Mashburn, who had Childs near him but whom Ewing ran out to help on. Mashburn swung it to Weatherspoon, who couldn’t hit over the much taller Marcus Camby. Game over. Series over.

For all intents and purposes, both teams runs as contenders were over, too. A few weeks before the following season, the Knicks traded Ewing to Seattle in a deal that brought back Glen Rice...because when you already have Houston and Sprewell, and they’re your second- and third-highest paid players, why not trade for another swingman and make him your fourth-highest? In the 20 seasons since that trade, the Knicks have won just one playoff series and missed the postseason 16 times.

Miami would win 50 games again the following season, but the world had moved on. The division champion was Philadelphia, led not by a bruising big man but a light, lightning-quick guard. The Heat would be swept in the first round by Charlotte. The leading scorer in that series? The Hornets’ Jamal Mashburn, who Miami had traded six weeks before the Knicks dealt Ewing.

Notes:

  • I’d forgotten how Larry Johnson sometimes used to square defenders up and circle the ball back and forth through his legs before going into his move. Post-up small forwards get me the hottest and LJ was as stylish as it got down low.
  • In the first quarter Ward dribbled up before most his teammates had transitioned to offense and pulled up from literally a couple inches in front of the three-point line. Today he’d be drawn and quartered for not taking a 3. Back then, there was a different philosophy. Only the truly great shooters — Drazen Petrović; Reggie Miller; Dana Barros — had the green light to shoot from deep whenever they were open. With most players, the thinking was there’s a mental bloc that makes taking 3s a whole other animal than shooting inside the arc, so when a player took a step inside the line and shot it was often applauded.
  • I learned a lot of math as a kid watching basketball. One of my favorite games was figuring out what the score projected to be based on how many points and minutes had occurred. Nowadays you can be midway through a first quarter and the game is on a 160-144 pace, and you know there’s no way that lasts. Three minutes into this game, the teams were on pace to score 96, and you knew there was zero chance of that happening.
  • Watching Mourning in this game, it struck me that his failure may ultimately have been due to his selflessness. Zo was too willing to make the right play, even when something more was called for. Ewing was clearly slower than him, but even when he was on the bench when Zo got the ball down low he’d rumble into the lane and dish off to guys in the corner rather than force the issue. I don’t always feel that’s a problem. LeBron James makes the right play every time; Kevin Garnett was unselfish to a fault in Minnesota, at times. Some players think they’re better than they are. Mourning was the opposite. He trusted his teammates when they needed to be the ones trusting him.
  • Walton really was a trip calling games, man. Eight minutes in, Tom Hammond reported that “New York has not committed a personal foul yet.” Walton replied: “Well, they haven’t been called for one.”
  • Walton at his hyperbolic worst, after Sprewell couldn’t convert on a one-on-one break against Majerle: “You’re playing against one of the great defensive players of all-time in Dan Majerle.”

That’s all for this recap, friends. I’d love to try and do this for every game the Knicks have left on their schedule this season, but I’m not sure if that’ll work. There aren’t too many momentous Knicks/Grizzlies blasts from the past, you know? Unless we’re talking about my boy...

If you have requests or suggestions (particularly if they’re of games that are actually somewhere online), let me know. I’ve been sick the past few days and pretty much restricted to sitting around doing nothing, so I’m up for just about any and all recaps you might have in mind. Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.