NEW YORK -- As New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy gushed after the game about Patrick Ewing, Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird was listening nearby. When Bird's turn at the table finally came, he cracked: "The way Jeff talked about Patrick, it almost made tears come to my eyes."
Yes, it was a joke from Bird, who had little else to joke about after his team's 83-76 loss to New York that narrowed Indiana's lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series to 2-1.
But somewhere deep inside, Bird might find himself close to tears if this turns out to be a long series.
That's because while Ewing is not playing up to his former All-Star caliber, he's getting better. In his second game back from a career-threatening injury to his right wrist that sidelined him for five months, Ewing scored a team-high 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a crucial win for the Knicks. New York can tie the series this afternoon.
"I think I improved a lot, in terms of my endurance," said Ewing, who played 32 minutes, up from 27 on Thursday. "I was able to play longer. My legs felt comfortable. From last game to this game, there was a drastic improvement."
Ewing wasn't dominant, but he was a presence. What really won the game was a combination of a stingy New York defense that held Indiana to a franchise playoff-record-low 10 points in the fourth quarter and an ineffective Pacers offense that struggled through a scoreless fourth-quarter stretch of 6 minutes, 18 seconds.
By the time Reggie Miller hit a free throw with 3: 31 left to end that drought, the Pacers, who led by as many as eight in the second half and had a four-point lead going into the final quarter, trailed 79-71.
"I really felt, in my heart, we had the game won," Bird said. "All we had to do was score a few points, and let defense take care of itself."
Bird was quick to criticize his bench that, over the first two games, enjoyed an 84-52 scoring advantage behind Jalen Rose and Travis Best. Yesterday Rose had seven points, and Best two as Indiana's reserves were outscored 37-14.
"Our starters got the big lead  in the first quarter, our bench came in like they were on vacation and didn't get back in the game," Bird said. "And I can't sit here and say our bench lost the game, but they didn't play."
Five of New York's six double-digit scorers came off the bench, led by John Starks' 12 points. But the biggest contribution came from Chris Childs.
Childs played in the first two games, but his combined 40 percent shooting and horrendous assist-to-turnover ratio (three assists, nine turnovers) led fans to boo loudly when he entered the game. Childs did a better job controlling the offense (five assists, two turnovers), hit a big jumper with 5: 23 left for a 75-70 lead, and played well on defense in 30 minutes.
"I tend to put added pressure on myself," Childs said. "I know what I have to do to help my team win, but I haven't been doing that lately."
"He was terrific," Van Gundy said. "Generally, he played an all-around game, which is what you need."
It will be much easier for Childs to get his game back with Ewing around. Ewing's biggest contribution was getting Rik Smits to pick up two fouls in just over a minute in the fourth quarter, the second with 5: 44 left leading to the disqualification of the 7-foot-4 center.
Smits, who had 22 points in Game 2, was ineffective yesterday (nine points, three rebounds). But you still have to respect his DTC offense when he's on the court, and without him Ewing was able to turn into more of a help defender while going against Dale Davis (six points, 2-for-10 from the free-throw line). The Pacers missed 13 of 32 free throws.
So the Knicks have a chance today to even the series, with the real main concern being the distribution of minutes with Ewing back. The biggest loser right now seems to be Charles Oakley, who, three games after playing the entire 48 minutes in the Game 5 win over the Miami Heat in the first round, tied a season low in minutes with 18 yesterday.
That's a sacrifice that Oakley will have to make with Ewing back.
"For him to sacrifice that pride and come out there just to help us win or give us a better chance to win, I think is a testament and really answers the question of how he cares about winning or scoring," Van Gundy said of Ewing. "Within the team, we applaud him for that."
And Ewing, in return, applauds his teammates.
"All along during the rehabilitation, I was telling my wrist, 'You'll be back,' " Ewing said. "I'm just thankful my teammates gave me the opportunity to come back."
Pub Date: 5/10/98