NEW YORK -- From all the whooping and hollering in and around Madison Square Garden, one would have thought that the New York Knicks had won the NBA title. But forward Charles Oakley wants everyone to hold off on the celebration.
"You have to remember that we were here last year -- the Eastern Conference finals," Oakley said. "We're not over the hump yet. We have a long, long way to go."
But the major step was taken Sunday, in an 87-77 win by the Knicks that ended the three-year reign of the Chicago Bulls -- the team that had eliminated New York for three straight seasons. Tonight at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks will continue their attempt to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973 when they face the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
After upsetting the Atlanta Hawks in six games, several Pacers -- guard Reggie Miller being the most vocal -- said their preference was to play the Knicks. Now, having beaten the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, Indiana is looking to take out the second-best.
After going 16-23 in their first 39 games, the Pacers went 31-12 over the last three months of the season, the best record in the Eastern Conference during that span and second-best in the league behind the Seattle SuperSonics (32-11). The 47 wins in the regular season were a club record.
Plus, the Pacers are confident, having come within an overtime loss of forcing New York to five games in an opening-round best-of-five series last year. The Knicks won all four meetings against Indiana during the regular season, but say that's meaningless after the way the Pacers eliminated the Orlando Magic and the Hawks.
"They're playing the best basketball in the league right now," Knicks coach Pat Riley said of the Pacers. "They're dominating. They're a great pressing team."
And they have some good shooters. Miller is averaging 22 points in the playoffs, and 7-foot-4 center Rik Smits is adding 15.8. The acquisition of veteran guard Byron Scott gave Indiana an experienced outside threat off the bench, and the Davises -- 6-9 Antonio and 6-11 Dale (unrelated) -- have provided many postseason highlights with their shot blocking and aggressive attacks at the basket.
"They're almost a mirror image of us, the way they play and how physical they are," said New York forward Anthony Mason. "They work hard. We're going to have to come to play. We won't have a letdown."
The Knicks simply have to play the way they did on Sunday, when they overcame a first half in which center Patrick Ewing was scoreless and guard John Starks had one point. But Ewing's two quick fouls that sent him to the bench early actually may have been a blessing.
With Ewing in the game, the offense revolves around him and almost slows to a stall as the Knicks work the ball to him. With him out, the Knicks had to work the ball more. When Ewing did return, instead of forcing shots against double and triple teams, he hit the open man. He wound up with a team-high six assists, along with 18 points and 17 rebounds.
"When we hold the ball for too long, we allow other teams time to set up their defense," said Oakley, who had 17 points and 20 rebounds -- 11 offensive -- on Sunday. "If we move the ball, we're able to get easy layups."
Two matchups will be key to each team's success. Smits was able to frustrate Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal and Atlanta's Kevin Willis, and will try to do the same against Ewing. And Miller will try to light it up against Starks, who is still not 100 percent after surgery on his left knee.
A year ago, Starks was ejected from a playoff game after head-butting Miller. New York can't afford to get caught up in the trash talking and dirty play that have been its trademarks in recent seasons.
The Knicks proved on Sunday that by simply playing basketball, they can compete.