Starks sure champagne was next


HOUSTON -- It was too upsetting for him to talk about after Game 6, but in the hours that followed, New York Knicks guard John Starks was certain what would have happened had Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon not gotten his fingertips on his last-second three-point attempt.

"If he hadn't got his hand on it, it would have been the game," Starks said without hesitation. "He made a great play, and I give him a lot of credit.

"He saved his team."

In Starks' view, the shot would have dropped, the Knicks would have won by one point and he and his teammates would have been sipping the champagne that had been chilling in the team's locker room. Instead the Knicks were losers, 86-84, bringing the NBA season to tomorrow's finale.

And it's only fitting. Little has separated the Knicks and the Rockets in this defensive series, with the teams averaging 87.3 points and 85.5 points, respectively.

New York coach Pat Riley won four NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, in memorable series against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. But he can't recall a series like this.

"This is about as close a series as I have ever been in," Riley said. "There has not been one game that has not gotten away from anybody. I can remember getting blown out in Boston and Detroit. Each and every one of these games has been decided in the last three or four minutes."

The quality of play in this series is nowhere near that of the classic matchups in the '80s, but it didn't take away from the tension on the Rockets sideline Sunday with the team facing elimination.

"I was scared. I was praying, 'Please, whoever gets this ball, turn it over, lose it or something. Just don't make the shot,' " said Rockets forward Robert Horry. "I was hoping [Starks] wasn't going to be able to get that last shot off. I was so happy that Dream blocked it."

And the Knicks walked off the court dejected, viewing the game as an opportunity lost.

"They could have closed it out, so this was very dissatisfying for LTC us," Riley said. "They can carry that feeling today. But we have to move on. I have a play that, hopefully, will change things."

The biggest change for New York would be better shooting after hitting 37.5 percent, their second-lowest percentage of the series. Derek Harper, a Most Valuable Player candidate for the series had New York won on Sunday, hit two of 10 shots and scored 10 points in 42 minutes. Patrick Ewing was six of 20 from the field and scoreless in the fourth quarter. He's shooting 35.6 percent for the series.

But the biggest factor might be which team is better conditioned. Each coach has adjusted his team's substitution patterns as the playoffs have gone deeper. New York basically went with six players on Friday, with four of the five starters playing at least 42 minutes. The Rockets are relying mostly on a seven-man rotation.

"Sure, I usually play more guys," Tomjanovich said. "But the playoffs are a lot different."

Vernon Maxwell agrees and is pleased with the two-day break going into tomorrow's game.

"We need the rest. It feels like this season has taken its toll on me," Maxwell said.

"I'm definitely fatigued, and I can't wait until it's over. But for 48 minutes, I'm going to put everything on the court."

The Rockets are feeling fortunate that those 48 minutes will be played on their home court and that the home team has won 19 straight seventh games in the playoffs. The finals have gone to Game 7 14 times, and the home team has won 11 times, numbers that have the Rockets feeling good.

"It would be kind of tough to go into Game 7 and play in [Madison Square Garden]," said Houston reserve forward Carl Herrera. "The way everything was going over there with their fans, they were fired up. We are home with our fans and its the best feeling."

But, as Riley has been quick to point out, fans don't win games.

"I think the seventh game transcends any home court," Riley said of the home-team dominance. "It's a stat, so be it. Maybe we can create a bit of history."


+ N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON (Series tied, 3-3) Results

Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78

2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83

Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89

Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82

Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84

Gm. 6: Rockets 86, Knicks 84


Date Site Time

Tomorrow at Houston 9

TV: Chs. 2 and 4

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