NEW YORK -- A year ago Michael Jordan was left wondering "who is this guy?" about the New York Knicks' John Starks, a little-known guard with a big mouth who was not afraid to spar verbally with an opponent.
Going head-to-head with Jordan yesterday in the opener of the NBA Eastern Conference finals, Starks kept his mouth closed -- but spoke volumes by opening up his game.
Offensively, Starks erupted in the fourth quarter, when he hit four of his Knicks playoff-record five three-pointers. And defensively he played an aggressive style that limited Jordan to just 10 second-half points as the Knicks beat the Bulls, 98-90, at Madison Square Garden to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven TTC series.
It was the first playoff loss this season for Chicago, which had swept Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds.
Starks finished with 25 points, 14 in the fourth quarter -- the time usually reserved for a Jordan eruption. Instead, Jordan scored just eight of his 27 points in the final quarter. With Starks draped all over him, Jordan hit just two of nine shots from the field at crunch time.
"I didn't remember him in the CBA, I don't know when he came in the league, but I definitely know him now," said Jordan, not known to praise opponents. "He played a big role -- a big, big role."
Starks was just one of many contributors for the Knicks, whose front line dominated the Bulls. Patrick Ewing scored 25 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, Charles Smith had 17 points and Charles Oakley pulled down 14 rebounds. The Knicks out-rebounded the Bulls, 48-28, with Ewing's 17 equaling the total of Chicago's starting front line.
"Probably without the complete effort on the boards we might have come up a little short," said New York coach Pat Riley, whose team was tentative and sloppy during much of the first half. "I thought we had a great defensive game and a great rebounding game to overcome what I consider to be unforced turnovers."
In beating the two-time defending NBA champions, the Knicks shot 55.4 percent -- New York's best shooting performance of the postseason, against a defense that ranked second in the league (behind the Knicks). After falling behind 61-55 midway through the third period, the Knicks rallied to take a 72-69 lead at the end of the third quarter.
They went on to shoot 67 percent from the field (8-for-12) in the fourth quarter, when they led by as many as 10. The Bulls were never able to get within four points after falling behind 83-73.
"In the second half, they stepped it up defensively and we came out and lost our offensive execution," Jordan said.
Starks was the key to the Knicks' fourth-quarter roll, hitting the first of four three-pointers early in the quarter to give the Knicks a 77-69 lead. That was the start of Starks' nine straight points for the Knicks. His third three-pointer of the quarter came from the top of the circle with Jordan flying at him.
"I wasn't [shooting] in the first half and Patrick [Ewing] got on me about that," said Starks, the Knicks' second-leading scorer who had just eight points at the break. "He told me to come up and square up [off the pick and roll] and that my shot was going to fall."
And they kept falling with a performance that left Jordan slightly in awe.
"He's just as much a surprise to me as he is to you all," Jordan told reporters. Last season, Jordan made it known that he didn't appreciate the jawing of Starks and teammates Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony.
"He's gotten out of that cockiness mode and developed into a confident player," Jordan said. "I don't know where Starks and Mason [13 points] came from, but they're here and they're playing a big role with this team."
And Starks, Mason and their teammates are playing their roles cleanly, a surprise to many who expected a repeat of the overly aggressive tactics the Knicks used in taking the Bulls to seven brutal games in a second-round matchup a year ago.
Chicago coach Phil Jackson spent the days before this series questioning New York's rough style but, aside from a minor skirmish in the third quarter after Scottie Pippen (24 points) fouled New York's Doc Rivers on a driving layup, yesterday's game was without incident.
"I guess some people expected to see blood, but it wasn't any of that," Jordan said. "They ran some physical plays, but not nearly what everyone expected."
And that allowed Jackson to throw some praise at New York.
"I thought it was a well-played game by the Knicks -- they shot the ball extremely well," Jackson said. "Their defense played big in the second half, forced us out of all of our offense and we took some tough shots that didn't hit. Turnovers we created; offensive rebounds they got. And that was the difference in the game."
And so was Starks. While Jordan was establishing himself as the best player in the game, Starks was attending four different colleges in Oklahoma and bagging groceries at a supermarket to make ends meet. Now it's his job to help the Knicks make their first championship final in 20 years -- and his performance yesterday showed he was up for the task.
"John doesn't surprise me anymore," Riley said. "He's gotten so consistent as a scorer and he's a big-time player. He has arrived."