Work in Sports
TORONTO (Ticker) -- Once again, the Toronto Raptors faltered down the stretch and are heading home. With the help of another clutch 3-pointer by Larry Johnson, the New York Knicks are headed to the conference semifinals for the ninth straight season.
Johnson hit a pair of free throws and banked in a 3-pointer as the Knicks closed the game with a 9-2 run and posted an 87-80 victory over the Raptors in the first NBA playoff game outside of the United States to complete a three-game sweep of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
The Knicks, who had lost three of four regular-season games against Toronto, will meet bitter rival Miami in the conference semifinals beginning next Sunday in Miami. The Heat completed a first-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons on Saturday.
"We think we beat a really good team," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We were humbled by Toronto in the regular season. They definitely had our attention. We were much more studious in what we needed to do to win."
The inexperience of the Raptors reared its ugly head down the stretch in all three games. Today, Toronto was slow in its defensive rotations, committed a costly turnover and failed to hit a basket in the final minute.
"They were good with their execution when they needed to be and we just didn't do it," Raptors coach Butch Carter said. "When you lose, you know there are points in the game that could have turned it around."
After Johnson converted a pair of free throws to snap a 78-78 tie with 1:10 left, Toronto appeared disorganized on offense on its next possession. Forward Charles Oakley picked up his dribble behind the top of the key and was looking to pass to a guard. None came to Oakley, who bounced a pass past Dee Brown and out of bounds.
On the next possession, Toronto ran a double-team at Latrell Sprewell, who flipped to Allan Houston. As the Raptors were slow to pick up Houston, the Knicks' best perimeter shooter calmly dribbled to the top of the key and drilled a jumper to increase New York's lead to 82-78 with 44 seconds left.
"We executed down the stretch not going to one particular player," Houston said. "That wins the game for you. We are unselfish with each other."
Toronto got a break when New York's Patrick Ewing inexplicably pushed Antonio Davis from behind in the lane, stopping the clock with 42 seconds left. Davis converted both free throws.
On New York's ensuing possession, Johnson stuck a dagger in the Raptors when he banked in a 3-pointer from the left elbow with 24 seconds left, increasing the lead to 85-80.
"It was lucky, but I'll take it," Johnson said. "I just go out and try to do whatever my coaches and teammates ask of me in order to win."
"When a guy shoots a 3 off the glass it's a heartbreaker," Raptors swingman Tracy McGrady said. "We were in every game. It's unfortunate we didn't pull any of these games out."
After sinking the 3-pointer, Johnson flashed his trademark "Big L" sign with his right arm, which he popoularized during New York's run to the NBA Finals last season.
It was yet another pivotal playoff 3-pointer for Johnson, who came to the rescue with a tie-breaking, 25-foot jumper with 42 seconds left in New York's 92-88 win in Game One last Sunday.
"He's been put in that situation time and time again and has delivered for us," Sprewell said.
Johnson shot just 33 percent from behind the arc this season but has a penchant for hitting clutch playoff 3-pointers. His most famous turned into a four-point play and gave the Knicks a stunning 92-91 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game Three of last year's conference finals. Johnson also hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final minutes of New York's Game Five win at Indiana.
All-Star forward Vince Carter and Dee Brown each missed 3-pointers in the final seconds and Chris Childs converted a pair of free throws for the final margin.
Houston led the Knicks with 23 points and Johnson added 14, including eight in the fourth quarter.
Davis led the Raptors with 18 points and 12 rebounds and Carter added 15 points, but was just 5-of-17 from the field and 15-of-50 for the series.
"I was glad to help the Raptors get into the playoffs, but there is still a sore spot in the back of your mind because you didn't win a game," Vince Carter said. "I realize now that I won't be playing any more basketball and I have to go home and watch, which is tough."
NBC prematurely billed Carter as the next Michael Jordan after he won the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend. It put the Raptors into the network's regular season rotation and stretched out this series to make sure the high-flying forward would display his explosive moves to the basket and rim-rattling dunks on back-to-back Sundays.
But the Knicks gave Carter a healthy dose of playoff-style defense. After shooting a horrific 3-for-20 in the series opener, Carter bounced back and scored 27 points on 7-of-13 shooting in Game Two.
However, that ended up being a bitter loss for Carter and the Raptors, who squandered a 16-point lead. Carter rushed a missed 3-pointer with 28 seconds left and then was victimized by Sprewell on the game-winning basket with 7.9 seconds left in New York's 84-83 victory.
Coach Butch Carter caught some criticism in that game for having Dee Brown, who played just three minutes, on the court to take the final shot as time expired.
Today, Carter again opened himself up for second-guessing with Brown in the game in the final minute instead of either Muggsy Bogues or Doug Christie. That played a role in Oakley's turnover and Brown missed all three of his shots.
Bogues, Christie and Brown combined to hit just 4-of-19 shots and Toronto shot a dismal 35 percent (29-of-83) for the game and was 3-of-21 from 3-point range.
McGrady, who was moved into the starting lineup midway through the season, may have played his last game with the Raptors.
Eligible for free agency in July, McGrady scored all of Toronto's points in an 8-0 third-quarter run but finished with 12 on 5-of-14 shooting.
Meanwhile, the Knicks were 9-of-21 from 3-point range as they overcame 17 turnovers. Johnson, Houston, and point guards Childs and Charlie Ward each hit a pair of 3-pointers. Childs finished with 10 points off the bench.
Sprewell and Ewing were also in double figures with 11 and 10, respectively, but combined to shoot just 6-of-19.
The Knicks had never won at the Air Canada Centre, losing their previous three games. They appeared spooked at the start, missing 10 of their first 11 shots. However, the Raptors failed to take advantage, misfiring on 13 of their first 16 shots.
A 3-pointer by Ward in the final minute gave New York a 21-20 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Knicks built the biggest lead of the half at 46-41 on a dunk by Sprewell with under two minutes remaining. However, the Raptors closed the half with a 3-pointer and a free throw by Dell Curry.
Eight straight points by McGrady on a pair of jumpers, a layup and two free throws gave Toronto its biggest lead at 59-52 with 4:38 left in the third quarter. The Knicks had four turnovers in the run.
New York responded with its own 8-0 run sparked by Houston, who hit a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. A 3-pointer by Sprewell capped the run and gave New York a 60-59 lead with 2:20 left.
A 15-foot jumper by Bogues with three seconds left put Toronto ahead, 63-61. But New York scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter, taking a 69-63 lead on a basket by Kurt Thomas and 3-pointers by Childs and Johnson.
Vince Carter hit a running banker and converted a three-point play off a rebound to ignite a 7-0 run. Kevin Willis capped it with a short jumper, giving the Raptors a 70-69 advantage with 6:49 left.