Johnson's 4-point play at end sinks Pacers in Game 3, 92-91; Controversial foul call on three-pointer results in 2-1 Knicks series lead


NEW YORK -- On the bench, Patrick Ewing raised his arms skyward and then started slapping every hand he could find. On celebrity row, Spike Lee jumped into the arms of rapper Puff Daddy, who joyfully spun the diminutive director in circles. And the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden stayed put long after the game, chanting: "Larry! Larry! Larry!"

Yes, the New York faithful serenaded Larry Johnson after the forward's four-point play with 5.7 seconds left gave the Knicks an improbable, 92-91 win over the Indiana Pacers last night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

With the win, the Knicks took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 to be played here tomorrow night.

Just as in Game 2, this one ended in controversy. While Johnson deserved much credit for hitting the three-point shot, which came with his team trailing 91-88, the big shock was that a foul was called by official Jess Kersey.

Replays showed that while Indiana forward Antonio Davis bumped Johnson, the contact came before the shot. There was no contact as Johnson released the ball, but Kersey called the foul.

Johnson, surprised to get the call, stepped to the line and hit a free throw that gave New York a 92-91 lead. On Indiana's final possession, Mark Jackson's jumper bounced off the rim to set off a wild celebration that featured Johnson's victory lap around the court.

"That was the biggest four-point play I've ever seen," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, as his eighth-seeded team moved a step closer to the NBA Finals. "That was the first time I've ever seen that, a four-point shot to end a game."

It was New York's first game of the postseason without Ewing, who tore his Achilles' tendon in the Knicks' Game 2 loss. And in a game in which the New York guards largely struggled, it was the two front-court players who stepped up to make major contributions.

Marcus Camby was extremely active off the bench, contributing a game-high 11 rebounds and 21 points -- including two pressure free throws with 13.8 seconds left.

And then there was the play of Johnson, who scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Johnson hit three of New York's four three-pointers for the game, but none was bigger than the one that won it.

"With Patrick out, guys have to step up," Johnson said. "And that's what we did. We stepped up as a team."

And still the Knicks appeared doomed with 3: 21 left when Rik Smits (25 points) hit two free throws to give the Pacers an 89-81 lead. Smits had fouled out in each of the first two games, and his being on the court with Ewing sidelined appeared to be the difference in the game.

But New York point guard Chris Childs responded with a three-pointer with 3: 10 left -- the exact moment of his three-pointer in Game 1 began a rally in New York's eventual win.

With the Knicks' defense holding the Pacers scoreless for nearly three minutes after the two free throws by Smits, New York continued to chip away at the lead.

After Camby was fouled and made the two free throws with 13.8 seconds left that pulled New York within 89-88, Jackson was fouled immediately and the Indiana point guard (13 points, nine assists) made two free throws for a 91-88 lead.

New York called time and inbounded the ball at halfcourt, but the game was almost lost when Jalen Rose tipped the pass and nearly came up with the steal.

"We were going for a quick two," Van Gundy said of New York's final possession. "If we got it to Allan [Houston], we were going to drive it, and maybe kick it out for the open three. It came to Larry and he didn't have anything real good. He just made a heck of a shot."

True, a big shot. But a foul? If anything, Johnson was fouled long before he launched his attempt -- which would have given him two free throws.

"That was a bad call," Indiana coach Larry Bird said. "The way I see it, I was disappointed he didn't get two free throws, but that's part of it. [Johnson] made a great play."

Said Johnson of the shot: "I was just trying to release that thing, stay square and get off a good shot. When I let it go, I was square. I thought I released it pretty good. This was a good win for us. Last year, had we got down in the fourth quarter we would have lost the game. We would have folded."

But the Knicks didn't fold, and on a night when both Houston (15 points, seven turnovers) and Latrell Sprewell (14 points, 6-for-19 from the field) had subpar outings, the team still won. And that has to help boost the Knicks' confidence going into the remaining games of what's expected to be a long series.

"Yes, it was a big shot, but this is just one game," Johnson said. "We're only up 2-1. We don't want to dwell on the way we came back and lost this series 4-2."

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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