Knicks hope home court helps them cash in vs. charging Bulls


NEW YORK -- Late in the regular season, as the New York Knicks were battling for the best record in the Eastern Conference, coach Pat Riley was asked about the importance of home-court advantage.

"Home-court advantage doesn't mean anything," Riley said at the time, "unless you get to a seventh game."

The Houston Rockets know that, having won on their home court in Game 7 yesterday. And the Utah Jazz know that, having reached the Western Conference finals with a Game 7 win over the Denver Nuggets. In fact, the home team has won the league's last 17 Game 7s.

This afternoon the Knicks will find out just how meaningful home-court advantage is when they play host to the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden to see who advances to play the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. The Knicks have never beaten the Bulls in a playoff series, going 0-5.

Before the season, the Knicks felt they were destined to be champions. And why not, since there was no Michael Jordan to thwart their championship drive.

"This is our year," Patrick Ewing predicted before the playoffs started. "I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Ewing would have never imagined that the light would be the fire of the raging Bulls, who have outplayed the Knicks throughout the series and are just a controversial foul call (see Game 5) away from having beaten the Knicks in six games.

Given an opportunity to end the Bulls' reign as champions on Friday, the Knicks instead came out flat -- surprising for a team playing with so much at stake. The Knicks were out-rebounded for the second time in the series (52-35) and were simply out-hustled by a Bulls team that put forth its most balanced effort of the series and shied away from the dirty, physical tactics that the Knicks relied on.

"We don't want to play holding, grabbing, punching basketball," said Bulls center Bill Cartwright, who had nine points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes on Friday. "We just want to play our type of game. This series will come down to loose balls, second shots and scrub shots."

And how the game is officiated. On Friday the Bulls had a 15-2 advantage in free throws in the first quarter, and a 31-22 advantage for the game.

"That last-second call in Game 5 brought something to [Game 6] -- it was closely watched," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said. "I don't know if it will have an effect on Game 7. I know that it will be a very active game and it will be a very long battle."

Jackson even went so far as to say Game 7 will be like playing on "a neutral zone." He has to feel good about how his team has competed in New York, dropping the three games there by a total of 10 points.

But Riley thinks otherwise -- although he knows it will take a lot more than screaming fans to push the Knicks over the top.

"The fans really do help," Riley said. "But the players still have to get the job done themselves."

Knicks guard Derek Harper, upset with Friday's effort, hopes his teammates are up to the task.

"We can't think they're going to just go away, because they're not," Harper said. "Until somebody knocks them off, they're still the champions.

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