NEW YORK -- They call it "ugly ball" here, a label tagged to the style played by the New York Knicks. It's neither crowd-pleasing nor for the faint of heart. But last night it was good enough to put the Knicks within one game of an NBA championship.
After blowing a 12-point, third-quarter lead, the Knicks rallied in the closing minutes from a three-point deficit for a 91-84 victory over the Houston Rockets before a sellout crowd of 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.
The win gave New York a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals, with a chance to clinch its first championship in 21 years tomorrow night in Houston.
"We started the season on midnight, Oct. 6 -- we wanted to be the first team to hit the floor in 1993 and hopefully the last team to leave it in 1994," New York coach Pat Riley said. "We are on the brink of what we have dreamt about."
The Knicks are on the brink thanks to a defense that forced the Rockets to miss 10 straight shots until Hakeem Olajuwon (27 fTC points) hit a three-pointer from the top of the key with 22.2 seconds left. That shot ended a drought of four minutes in which the Rockets went without a field goal, a span in which they went from a three-point lead to an eight-point deficit.
New York forced 18 Houston turnovers, eight by Olajuwon.
When Houston won Game 3 last Sunday, Olajuwon had a team-high seven assists. But aggressive double-teams forced Olajuwon into a lot of bad passes, and he had just one assist last night.
"Because we turned the ball over so much they wound up with good shots in transition," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "If we play anybody five-on-five and stop them in transition, we can be champions."
The Rockets will have two chances to get it done in Houston, but will need to play better than last night, when they shot 40.7 percent. Again Houston's starting backcourt of Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith was badly outplayed, scoring 14 points (five of 15) in a combined 66 minutes.
John Starks scored 19 points, and Derek Harper had 14 out of New York's backcourt.
"Their backcourt played well and we're stuggling," said Maxwell, who scored eight points. "That's the difference."
And a big difference last night for New York was some offensive productivity from center Patrick Ewing. After missing 20 shots in each of the past two games, Ewing hit 11 of 21 shots last night, scoring 25 points.
He also grabbed 12 rebounds and tied an NBA Finals record with eight blocks. Two of those blocks came during the fourth-quarter defensive stance that changed the game.
"We've been winning some games with him in a slump," Knicks reserve forward Anthony Mason said. "But when the big fellow comes out of a slump, we're that much more dangerous."
While the 15-5 run that ended the game proved exciting for New York fans, the game should have been decided long before that. When Ewing hit a three-pointer with the shot clock running down and 6:01 left in the third quarter, the Knicks had a 59-47 lead and the Garden crowd at maybe the loudest its been the entire series.
But the Knicks don't win easily, and scored just two points the rest of the quarter. Meanwhile, Olajuwon was putting on a shooting clinic, scoring from all angles. He had eight points during a 14-2 run that, after his baseline jumper with 5.44 seconds left, tied the game at 61 going into the final period.
"We do it all the time," Mason said of letting the Rockets back in the game. "We're pretty much used to it."
Houston continued its run in the fourth, taking its biggest lead (67-63) after a layup by Otis Thorpe with 9:25 left. The Rockets appeared to be in control after Olajuwon's jumper with 4:25 left gave Houston a 75-72 lead, but then the game changed.
Starks scored a transition layup, pulling New York within a point. After Maxwell hit a free throw, Starks hit a three-pointer with 2:22 left that gave New York an 81-80 lead.
It appeared to unravel the Rockets, who missed several easy scoring opportunities. Houston was nine of 24 from the field in the fourth quarter, sealing its fate.
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Knicks lead series, 3-2)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84
Schedule Date ........ Site ........ Time
Tomorrow .... at Houston ... 7
Wednesday* .. at Houston ... 9
TV: All games on chs. 2 and 4