MIAMI -- It wasn't Madison Square Garden, but for the New York Knicks walking off the Miami Arena floor, it sure felt like
home. Hundreds of Knicks fans gathered in the lower bowl of the arena cheering wildly, with one holding a sign that summed up the moment:
"What goes around comes around."
Poor judgment ended the Knicks' season last year in a second-round series with the Heat. And poor judgment by center Alonzo Mourning on Thursday cost the Heat yesterday. With Mourning suspended for fighting, New York defeated Miami, 98-81, to win the opening-round NBA series, 3-2.
The Knicks, who had to battle in the final week of the season just to make the playoffs, advanced to an Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat, the No. 2 seed with 55 wins and a second consecutive Atlantic Division title, is left to wonder what might have happened had Mourning not thrown a punch at the Knicks' Larry Johnson, leading to the suspension of Miami's top scorer and best defender, Johnson and New York forward Chris Mills.
"Without a presence in the middle, you have to take advantage of it," said Knicks guard John Starks. "We needed to take advantage of their misfortunes."
With Mourning, who had been averaging 19.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in the playoffs, out of the way, the Knicks dominated inside and out-rebounded the Heat, 49-43. They took command in the first half, holding Miami to 31 points and harassing point guard Tim Hardaway into 1-for-7 shooting.
The Knicks also prevailed with better backcourt play, using a three-guard lineup. Allan Houston scored 30, Starks 22 and Charlie Ward finishing with 14 assists and a game-saving effort in the fourth quarter when New York's 20-point lead was cut to two.
Hardaway led the Heat with 21, but Voshon Lenard became a non-shooting guard, taking just six shots and scoring seven points.
"I knew I had to do a lot for us to win -- I didn't do a lot," said Hardaway, whose 18 second-half points helped rally the Heat. "I probably should have been aggressive and put up 30 shots. Then, maybe we would have won."
More important, however, was that the players who were asked to take up the slack for Johnson came through for New York.
The Knicks, in a testimony to age and experience, got 12 points and 14 rebounds in 30 minutes from 38-year-old Buck Williams, and 19 valuable minutes from 37-year-old Terry Cummings, who started at center.
"Me and Buck, we're just two old tanks rumbling along, doing what we need to do to help the team win," Cummings said.
Yet it was the poise of the 27-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner, Ward, that saved the day.
The Knicks led by 18 when the point guard went to the bench with four fouls with 3: 29 left in the third quarter, forcing the inconsistent Chris Childs into the lineup.
Ward returned with New York up by five, then watched Hardaway sink a three-pointer to cut the lead to 72-70 with 7: 14 left. Ward answered with a three-pointer for a 75-70 lead, beginning a 16-5 run during which Ward also had three assists. The last, to Williams for a dunk, gave New York an 88-75 lead.
"Ward's three-pointer gave them life and relief," Riley said.
So Riley's run at a title ended prematurely in a series that revealed the coach's ill will toward his former assistant, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Riley blasted Van Gundy on Saturday, saying, "The audacity of Van Gundy, calling Zo [Mourning] a whiner and complainer. All Jeff does is launch spitballs. He gets his players to launch the grenades."
Replied Van Gundy yesterday: "I respect him greatly. His opinion of me has obviously changed. But that won't change my opinion of him."
So you have to figure that everything is even now between the Knicks and Heat, right?
Nope. Ward predicts it's far from over.
"We'll continue to battle, as long as Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy are here," Ward said. "This book is not closed. This is just another chapter."
Pub Date: 5/04/98