NEW YORK -- Patrick Ewing missed the open layup. Missed it with John Starks screaming for the ball in the left corner. Missed it with Reggie Miller thinking the Knicks would win in overtime. Missed it with his dream of an NBA title hanging in the balance.
These things happen for a reason. This one had nothing to do with Ewing, and everything to do with the Indiana Pacers, "the train that couldn't get up the mountain" in the words of backup conductor -- er, point guard -- Haywoode Workman.
Few expected The Little Train That Could to climb Mount Ewing and pull out of the fabled arena that sits atop New York's Penn Station yesterday, but guess what? Ewing missed the open layup, the Pacers escaped with a 97-95 victory, and now they're off to Orlando for the Eastern Conference finals.
Never mind that the home team had won 20 of the last 21 Game 7s in the NBA playoffs. Never mind that Ewing still believes the Knicks are the better team. These things happen for a reason. And, once and for all, in deafening Madison Square Garden, it was the Pacers' time.
The Knicks had beaten them four straight in the playoffs two years ago. Rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat them in the Eastern Conference finals last year. Rallied from a 3-1 deficit this year, erased a 15-point deficit in the third quarter, then sent Ewing storming down the lane.
Five seconds left, the Knicks down two, and the inbounds pass (( went to Ewing at the top of the key. He took his time, spun around two defenders, then found himself ridiculously free. He made the game-winning shot in Game 5 with 1.8 seconds left. Now here he was again, with an even better look.
Three seconds left.
"It was like the seas opened up," Knicks forward Charles Smith said.
"I thought overtime," Knicks guard Derek Harper said.
"Oh shoot," Indiana forward Antonio Davis thought. "Here we go again."
The Pacers still believe Ewing traveled before his game-winning basket in Game 5, but as it turned out, they got the last break. Indiana coach Larry Brown said Ewing shot off the wrong foot. Ewing said he was too far away to dunk. His finger roll bounced off the back of the rim.
It doesn't matter that Starks was open for a three-pointer -- Miller could recall him screaming Ewing's name. The Knicks had blown the game earlier, when Anthony Mason missed three free throws and an
open layup in the final 2:16. The Pacers, so afraid to win Game 6 at home, never wavered.
They will look back and wonder how they did it, with Miller going scoreless in the fourth quarter, with center Rik Smits playing only minutes due to foul trouble, with forward Dale Davis shedding the brace he used to protect his separated right shoulder.
The Knicks talk about soul and heart and courage, but they aren't the only team that embodies those virtues. Smits, a 7-foot-4 center out of the Netherlands and Marist College, scored the Pacers' final five points. Dale Davis, in need of surgery, grabbed the final rebound.
Miller won Game 1 practically by himself, bringing Indiana back from a six-point deficit in the final 18.7 seconds, and he was splendid yesterday, hitting back-to-back threes to give the Pacers a 74-59 lead late in the third quarter. But this team is so much more than one player.
It is Smits and the Davises, Mark Jackson and Derrick McKey. Ewing hit a foul shot with 6:53 left to regain the lead for New York. The Pacers might have collapsed right there, but McKey came right back and hit a three, and they never trailed again.
Miller played the fourth quarter, but was so drained, he couldn't add to his team-high 29 points. "They knew emotionally I was done," he said of his Indiana teammates. "I put everything into that third quarter to get us the lead. They knew they had to step up."
Dale Davis did.
And so did Smits.
"He's the next Shawn Bradley," Brown said, joking. "I read these papers. I get the impression that everyone thinks No. 31 [Miller] was carrying us on his back this series. He did for eight seconds. This guy played against a Hall of Famer, one of the great ones. And he held his own."
For his troubles, Smits earned the privilege of battling Shaquille O'Neal for perhaps seven games, but the Pacers swept Orlando three straight last season, so why should they be scared? They've overcome their most difficult opponent. They've got a chance.
"If we went to overtime, there's no question we would have lost the game," Miller said.
"We would have won it in overtime," Harper agreed.
L "There isn't any overtime," Ewing said. "I missed the shot."