By Ben Horney, Knicks fan since '94
After last night's loss put the Knicks down 3-1 in their matchup against the Pacers, fans are up in arms. But while history may be against them (only eight teams in NBA history have comeback to win a playoff series after falling behind 3-1), it's important to remember that losses often contain lessons. In that vein, let's take a look back at a loss that took place 19 years ago today that, while devastating at the time, didn't end the Knicks season -- Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bulls.
With Michael Jordan working on his baseball swing in 1994, the Eastern Conference appeared to finally be wide open for the taking -- especially for the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks, who had succumbed to Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. And yet, even without Jordan, the Bulls had managed to win 55 regular season games behind Scottie Pippen. Still when the two teams met in the second round of the playoffs, it appeared the Knicks would prevail over the Jordan-less Bulls -- they won the first two games of the series, before losing Game 3 on a heartbreaking Toni Kukoc buzzer beater.
But even though the Bulls had won Game 3, they were facing some controversy after Scottie Pippen had refused to take the court for the final possession when Phil Jackson drew up a play in which Kukoc would take the final shot and not Pippen. With all of the attention centered on Pippen supposedly being a selfish sourpuss, the Knicks had a chance to right the ship in Game 4.
But the Bulls came out hot, taking a 12-point lead by halftime and never letting the Knicks get too close, winning 95-83. Pippen seemed to take it upon himself to show the world why he should have been the one to take the final shot in the previous game, racking up 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
The Knicks were behind from the start and fell short in their attempts to play catch-up all game, despite a balanced attack that featured five players scoring in double figures: Ewing led the way with 18, followed by Charles Oakley (15), Anthony Mason (13) and John Starks and Charles Smith (11 apiece).
The Bulls victory tied the series at two, and suddenly the Knicks' dreams were being threatened. But they outrebounded the Bulls in Game 4, 46-33. After Game 4 the team that won the rebounding battle each night won the game. In Game 7, the Knicks won the battle of the boards, 52-44, and clinched the series to move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
This year's series against the Pacers isn't the same as that 1994 Knicks-Bulls matchup – the Pacers are big, so focusing on out-rebounding them might not be an achievable strategy – the point is, however, that basketball is often about far more than simply the final score.
Each rebound, each tip-out and each dribble affects the game in more ways than the eye can immediately see. Starting tomorrow, Coach Woodson and the Knicks must find what will be their advantage against the Pacers going forward. Whether that means hitting more threes or getting to the free throw line more than their opponent, the time to figure it out is now. The Knicks season depends on it.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images