It never should have gotten to this point, to Sunday in Miami, to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. You could see that Patrick Ewing knew this as time ran out and he loped up and down the floor of Miami Arena, his 34-year-old knees swathed in rubber and cloth; you could see the New York Knicks center sag as one Miami Heat shot after another spun through the basket and yet another Game 7 dribbled away. You could see it in his face—all the years of coming up short, all the years of his bosses adding new teammates and then taking them away, all the years of watching contemporaries like Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler finally break through and win it all. And you could see it with 3:49 left and the Heat ahead by 12 points, when Patrick Ewing, knowing the Knicks had squandered maybe his last, best hope for an NBA title, bent over for two more Miami free throws and, panting, grabbed at the hem of his shorts. For the first time all series he allowed his concentration to lapse; suddenly Ewing looked up at the crowd and his eyes climbed the face-filled walls in what was now a canyon of noise. He looked beaten, like a man aging fast. He had played a wonderful game, and it was going to come to nothing, and he knew.
But he didn't know why. "They robbed me," Ewing said, after the Heat beat the Knicks 101-90. "They robbed me of a great opportunity."
Ewing is wrong. Neither he nor New York was robbed of anything. The Knicks simply gave this series away. A week earlier they appeared a lock for the Eastern Conference finals. But it is Pat Riley's Heat—not the more talented, more experienced Knicks—who traveled to Chicago this week to take a shot at dethroning the Bulls, and rarely has an NBA team advanced so far in the playoffs carrying such suspect credentials. Pressed to five games by an injury-riddled Orlando Magic in the first round, outplayed by a Knicks team that held the usually commanding series lead of 3-1, Miami won three straight games to complete only the sixth such comeback in NBA history. But the series won't be remembered for Heat center Alonzo Mourning's fiery performance in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden or for Miami point guard Tim Hardaway's magnificent 38-point barrage (fueled by 6-of-10 three-point shooting) in Game 7.
No, it will go down in New York annals as the most horrifying collapse in franchise history, the instantly classic tale of how one team's infatuation with bruising, over-the-line antics ended up killing a chance to win the ultimate prize. Before the playoffs, Ewing took one look at the Knicks' jelling mix of free agents and veterans and boldly announced, "This is the shot"—the time to take down a Jordan-led Bulls team. Few disagreed after New York manhandled the Charlotte Hornets 3-0 in the first round and then the Atlantic Division champion Heat early in the second. However, once five Knicks, including Ewing, left the bench during the now infamous Game 5 wrestling match between Miami forward P.J. Brown and New York reserve guard Charlie Ward—a clear violation of the NBA's rule governing noncombatants during fights—"it turned the whole thing around and upside down," said Riley.
Because no Miami players—discouraged in part by the sight of referee Dick Bavetta standing nearby—left their bench, Brown was the only member of the Heat suspended, for the next two games, for fighting. But among the Knicks, leading scorers Ewing and guard Allan Houston, as well as Ward, were forced to sit for Game 6, and starting forward Larry Johnson and guard John Starks, the league's top sixth man, missed Game 7. New York lost Game 6, 95-90, falling to the clutch shooting of Hardaway, Mourning and Heat swingman Dan Majerle before a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd.
In Game 7, Riley's perfectly executed game plan, featuring some rare (for Riley) double-teaming on Ewing and the determination to shut down New York's guards, kept the Knicks reeling. No one had any illusions about the reason. As in the game before, the Knicks were literally outnumbered.
"It's a great team over there that was dealt a very difficult hand," Riley said afterward, nodding toward the Knicks' locker room. "They probably hurt more than they've ever hurt in their lives, because they really had the pieces this year. It's something they'll never stop talking about."
Never, or for at least as long as there are Knicks fans and that seemingly bottomless well of animosity toward Riley. He bolted New York two years ago after coaching the Knicks for four seasons—faxing in his resignation, no less—and was labeled a hypocritical poseur by the New York press. Pat the Rat, he was called, but when Riley made his first postseason return with the Heat, all the old rhetoric had been muted. For Games 3 and 4 in Manhattan, he was booed no more than any other enemy. Then came Game 5 in Miami: the fight, the ejections, the suspensions. "Riley set the stage for this outcome," said Knicks forward Buck Williams afterward. "Riley incited that sort of behavior in his players the last two or three days."
In the biggest picture, of course, Williams has a point. More than any other coach, Riley refined the bruising, defensive-minded, street-gang version of basketball when he coached the Knicks, and every replay of the May 14 melee came off as nothing so much as a battle between Riley Past and Riley Present. With former Riley assistant and disciple Jeff Van Gundy coaching Riley holdovers Ewing, Starks, Ward, forward Charles Oakley and backup center Herb Williams, and every Heat player now a hard-nosed convert to the gospel of Riley, it seemed only a matter of time until the two teams clashed. When Riley questioned his current team's manhood in practice on the eve of Game 5—demanding to know why Oakley was shoving them around, getting away with stepping over prostrate Heat players, kicking Mourning in Game 4—he no doubt set a hardline tone.
That Miami responded with its best effort of the series to that point, beating the full complement of Knicks 96-81, will be overshadowed by what happened with the game all but over. Stunningly, the Knicks allowed the entire series to turn on a meaningless pair of free throws and a rookie mistake by Knicks forward John Wallace. With 1:53 left, the Heat safely ahead and Hardaway shooting free throws, Wallace was lined up on Brown's right and Ward was on Brown's left, in front of the Knicks' bench. After Hardaway made his second shot, Wallace was supposed to box out Brown on the right while Ward pinched him out of the play. Instead, Wallace drifted into the lane, leaving Ward, a notoriously tough defender and vocal born-again Christian, to throw a block at Brown's legs. Brown stepped right, into the spot vacated by Wallace, stepped again, and when Ward continued to shove, Brown picked him up and dumped him over his hip, headfirst, into a row of photographers.