In NBA spotlight, Ewing burns bright


NEW YORK -- In the end, it wasn't just his season at stake, it was his entire career, his entire reputation. "Give me the ball," he told his genius coach and stumbling teammates. "If I'm going to lose, let me lose it."

Fighting words.

Champion's words.

Patrick Ewing's words, and they should define him forever.

It will be that way for a few days in New York, a few days of exultation until the NBA Finals begin. Nothing lasts too long in this tabloid-crazed city. Knicks win, they're great. Knicks lose, 00 they stink. No championship? Get out of town.

Ewing brought some of this on himself, guaranteeing an NBA title. He'll face the same tired questions if Hakeem Olajuwon outplays him in the finals. But that's two Game 7's now he took over. Two Game 7's when he said, "Give me the ball."

He did it against the Chicago Bulls after going scoreless in the first half. He did it again last night, did it with 24 points, 22 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots in the Knicks' 94-90 victory over Indiana.

What a game. What a turnaround. With 16 minutes left, the Pacers looked ready to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history. The Knicks trailed 65-53. Ewing had just picked up his fourth foul. Madison Square Garden was numb.

Knicks coach Pat Riley described the predicament as "harrowing, harrowing" but on the Pacers' next possession, Ewing blocked a shot by Antonio Davis, foul trouble and all. He played with fierce passion. The necessary smarts. And no fear.

With two minutes left, he buried an 18-footer to put the Knicks up by three. But still it was not over. The Pacers took a 90-89 lead with 34.5 seconds left. Then John Starks drove the lane on a pick-and-roll and missed a layup. What followed was the entire game in one moment -- an electrifying Ewing slam.

"They won it with a great player making a tremendous play," Pacers coach Larry Brown said. "They killed us off the offensive boards. We had our chances. We got our stops down the stretch. But second shots killed us the whole game."

Ewing had 11 offensive rebounds by himself -- as many as the entire Indiana team. The Knicks are the Knicks, a team with hot heads, clumsy feet and stone hands. There's only one reason to root for them in the finals. It's Patrick Ewing.

He spread his arms wide after his 18-point, second-half eruption in Game 7 against Chicago. Last night, he was hugging and high-fiving fans in the closing seconds. Then he jumped on the press table, raised his arms and howled with glee.

"There's been a lot of frustration through the years, starting when I came here, winning 23 games, then 24," said Ewing, the No. 1 pick out of Georgetown in the 1985 draft. "It's been a long time coming. I'm very proud, and very happy right now."

He's not Michael, Larry or Magic. He's not Kareem, Wilt or Russell. And if regular-season form holds, the quicker Olajuwon will dominate him in the finals. That won't sit well in what-have-you-done-for-me-lately New York. If the Knicks get blown out -- and they might -- then Ewing will have failed.

The people who appreciate him most are the people who matter most, the people in the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal was voted the Eastern Conference's All-Star center. But Shaquille O'Neal's team didn't win a game against Indiana in the first round.

"He comes to practice every day. He's treated like everyone else. He sets an example," Brown said. "We don't have enough like him in this game. He's what this game is about. I'm in awe of Patrick. He stepped up tonight."

He had no choice. The home team has now won 19 straight Game 7's in the NBA playoffs dating to 1982. But the remarkably resilient Pacers -- a team that entered this series with 11 straight losses at the Garden -- nearly ended that streak.

They shot 68 percent in the first half, evoking memories of Villanova-Georgetown, Ewing's most crushing defeat. They got a combined 42 points at shooting guard from Reggie Miller and Byron Scott. And they kept their poise until an air ball and flagrant foul by Miller at the very end.

"Run my play," Ewing kept telling Riley. "Give me the ball." No Scottie Pippen sit-down strike here. "If we lose, I'm the one who's going to get the blame, anyway," Ewing said later, drawing laughter from reporters. "So let it be because of me."

And so it went. Ewing's 22 rebounds were a career high in the playoffs. He hit the long jumper with 2:00 left. The Knicks botched their next two possessions. They blew a five-point lead in the final 4:30. But Ewing saved them with his follow-up slam.

"I told my wife last night, if it's up to me, we'll be going to Houston," Ewing said.

It was up to him.

0$ The Knicks are going to Houston.

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