As a boy growing up in the blighted south Dallas neighborhood of Dixon Circle, Larry Johnson launched hundreds of jump shots each day on a blacktop court. Long after the sun had slipped beneath the horizon, and fellow players had slipped off for home, Johnson would still be shooting in solitude, simulating game-winning shots, "sometimes till two or three in the morning," he says. "In my mind, I'd say, Clock's winding down! Johnson needs to make it! If it didn't go in, I'd say, Johnson gets fouled! And I'd shoot free throws."
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals last Saturday night, the Knicks forward reenacted both scenarios in one truly epic, implausible play. With his team trailing the Pacers 91-88 with 11.9 seconds remaining, Johnson grabbed a deflected inbounds pass intended for teammate Allan Houston. Standing behind the three-point arc, he made a slight head fake that got his defender, Antonio Davis, into the air. As Johnson took one dribble-step to his left, Davis, trying to recover, put both hands on Johnson and committed an inexplicable foul; Johnson took advantage of a generous continuation call and let fly a 26-footer that traced a rainbow arc and fell through the hoop. A "straight-flush swish," is how Knicks guard Chris Childs later described it.
As the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden went into a frenzy, Childs interrupted Johnson's celebration and reminded him that he still had a free throw to shoot. Johnson instantly grasped Childs's point and took a moment to decompress. He then calmly stepped to the line, straight flush swished the free throw and completed a four-point play to give New York a 92-91 lead with 5.7 seconds to play. When Indiana failed to score in its final possession, the Knicks had pulled off a flagrant act of grand larceny. "You think the worst thing you can do when you have a three-point lead is tie," said Pacers guard Reggie Miller, shaking his head. "I was wrong."
Johnson's miracle near 34th Street seemed to be incontrovertible proof of a thesis posited by a rapidly growing number of New Yorkers: The Knicks are a team of destiny this season. How else to explain New York, the last team to make the playoffs, knocking off top-seeded Miami in dramatic fashion, sweeping Atlanta and trading victories with heavily favored Indiana, which won Monday night's game 90-78 to even the series at two games apiece as the teams headed back to Indianapolis. "You can call it destiny or whatever you want," says Childs. "The point is, we believe."
Their faith has been bolstered by Johnson's play during this late-season run. Even before his Game 3 heroics, the 6'7", 235-pound Johnson was giving the Pacers fits. Despite averaging only 10.7 points a game against Indiana during the regular season, Johnson was scoring nearly double that in the conference finals. He was particularly effective in Game 2, scoring 17 first-half points from all over the floor and finishing with a game-high 22 on 9-of-12 shooting.
Johnson's play has been all the more vital given the loss of center Patrick Ewing, who had hobbled valiantly through the playoffs but whose season was ended after Game 2 by a torn Achilles tendon. For Ewing loyalists, his injury represented the sword of Damocles finally falling on any title aspirations New York had been nurturing. Another faction quietly wondered whether the aging center's injury was a disguised blessing. Without the creaky "big fella" slogging downcourt, the Knicks could unleash their fresh, young legs against the Pacers, a team that toils at about the same speed as most post office workers. "We're going to miss Patrick," Childs said before Game 3, "but now we're going to put on our track shoes."
After learning that his season was over, Ewing gave his teammates a motivational, if slightly solipsistic, directive: "Get me my ring." His Win One for the Gimper speech was, rather cheesily, rebroadcast on the overhead monitor at Madison Square Garden during the tip-off of Game 3. Through the first 45 minutes, however, the Knicks' offense often appeared no better lubricated than Ewing's joints. Guard Latrell Sprewell abandoned his effective slashing in favor of awkward post-up moves and was 6 of 19 from the floor, while Houston made 6 of 17.
After leading 89-81 with 3:12 remaining, the Pacers' defense became as lax as the security at Market Square Arena, where the Knicks had been showered with beer, coins and one-fingered salutes during Games 1 and 2. Indiana coach Larry Bird was especially galled by an offensive rebound by New York forward Marcus Camby late in the game. "One rebound that will win the game," Bird said afterward, his voice riven with disbelief, "and three of our guys are just standing there." Camby, the best player on the floor that night in Bird's estimation, also made two foul shots with 13.8 seconds left that set the stage for Johnson.
In retrospect, it was wholly apposite that Johnson played the hero's role to perfection. Throughout this chaotic season for the Knicks, amid all the well-chronicled distractions and internal squabbling, Johnson has been a beacon of stability and a cohesive influence in the locker room. He scored when called upon, but he also deferred to Ewing's seniority, which meant that he often went entire quarters without taking a shot. "A lot of guys say it's about we, not me," says Knicks forward Kurt Thomas. "With Larry you know he means it, because it shows in his actions."
As a small patch of gray attests, Johnson is getting older (he turned 30 in March), and his game reflects as much. The once explosive leaping ability of the erstwhile dunking Grandmama was irretrievably lost after he hurt his back in 1994. Johnson needed time to adjust to the limitations of his body—as if in a flashback to his lonely days on those blacktop courts in Dallas, he diligently practiced a new set of low-post moves predicated on wile and guile. Now he may have the best up-and-under move since Celtics post-up specialist Kevin McHale. He also improved his outside shooting to the point where he's a bona fide three-point threat. (Never mind that his three trifectas in Game 3 came on a 35-foot heave at the end of the first quarter, a shot off the glass and the miraculous four-pointer. Again, think fate.)