The New York Knicks have the home-court advantage, bu the Chicago Bulls are in familiar territory. For the fifth straight year, they are in the Eastern Conference finals, where few Knicks have gone before.
Exactly two have been there, not counting coach Pat Riley. Rolando Blackman's Dallas Mavericks lost to Riley's Los Angeles Lakers in the seventh game of the 1987-88 Western Conference finals. Tony Campbell was a bench player on that Lakers team. That is the sum of the Knicks' conference-finals experience.
"What we did in the regular season won't help us now," John Starks said, sensing an imminent change in the playoff climate after the Knicks finished off the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night in five games.
Subtle environmental changes are felt during the conference finals. The league office assumes a greater presence. The national and international media contingent grows. There is never more than one game on a given day, focusing more attention on whichever is being played.
Magic Johnson once said he felt more nervous about the conference final than the league championship series. "You're so close to the finals you can almost taste it," he said. "There's a lot more pressure than actually being there."
The Bulls lost their first two conference final series to Detroit, in six games, then seven. Those first two years, the Pistons were coming off a seven-game defeat in the finals and their first championship. Michael Jordan remembers the Bulls as not being "mentally ready" to take that last difficult step to the league finals. It was as if, he said, the Bulls were pleased to simply have made it that far.
Are the Knicks? Something Patrick Ewing said Tuesday night may have indicated how happy he and the Knicks are just to be here. "It's rewarding to live up to our expectations," he said.
In the Ewing era, the conference final has been a goal almost unimaginable, with the exception of 1989, when the Knicks won the Atlantic Division under Rick Pitino and began the second round as the favorites over Jordan and the Bulls. The Bulls took away the Knicks' home-court advantage in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden, held serve in back-to-back weekend games at Chicago Stadium and wrapped the series up on two Jordan free throws at home in a wild Game 6 finish.
That was the season the Knicks had won all four games against the Pistons and believed they would have a serious chance if they could just reach the conference final.
Now that they have made it, it will be up to Riley to make sure that his players keep taking deep breaths, and to keep reminding them that they not only belong, but could be considered the favorite to advance. The Knicks won the season series from the Bulls, 3-1, losing only on Christmas night in Chicago. After a strong Knicks first half, the Bulls trapped them in the second half, a point that has remained with Jordan for the rest of the season.
The Bulls have not lost in seven playoff games. Jordan has created the sense that he has pulled his game out of cruise control and is once again taking the ball to the rim with authority. As images of the Knicks struggling against Indiana and Charlotte were beamed across the country, so, too, were heroic performances by Jordan on a sprained ankle in Game 3 against Atlanta and with a badly sprained wrist against Cleveland.
"You don't want to watch Jordan in the other playoff games because you realize how scary he can be," said Doc Rivers. "The only time you want to watch him is in those McDonald's commercials."
As scary as Jordan is, he is banged up, and so are the ankles of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. As the Bulls -- particularly Pippen -- have not come close to facing the kind of defensive pressure and physical play they will get from the Knicks, it is not difficult to imagine them wearing down in the fourth quarter. If the Knicks haven't proved to be a team capable of dominating an opponent in the first two rounds, they have demonstrated superior depth.
The Knicks expect every game will be decided late, and they like their chances in those situations, even against Jordan. "I think the closeness of these games will help us," said Starks, referring to the five Hornets games, which included a Knick victory in overtime and a loss in double overtime. But this is the conference finals, the bridge to late June. "It's going to be a wild one," Starks said, the only prediction that is certain to come true.