How many times had he endured the wrath of Madison Square Garden? Charlie Ward was, after all, the one New York Knicks fans usually blamed for their team's inability to win a championship. The Knicks would forever fall short, said the faithful, until they got a point guard who was bigger, meaner, better. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Garden on Monday, the discerning throng of 19,763 voiced their feelings for Ward, feelings that have become even stronger and deeper as the playoffs have worn on.
After watching Ward quarterback a stunning transition attack that had New York shooting 66.7% and leading 57-40 at the half, after seeing him bury a critical three-pointer to help stave off a fourth-quarter Indiana comeback, after witnessing his playmaking and defense help the gritty Knicks win 91-89 to square the series at two games apiece, his onetime critics made a serenade of his first name, embracing him as the guy they had really wanted all along. "Gratifying? I guess you could say that," Ward mused. "You go through so much, and all you ever want is a chance to show what you are capable of doing."
For six seasons Ward's teammates have watched him methodically launch hundreds of three-pointers after practice, preparing for the time he would have to make that shot when it mattered most. Not that Ward ever exaggerated his importance. His job was to get the ball to small forward Latrell Sprewell or shooting guard Allan Houston or to Patrick Ewing on the block, then get the hell out of the way. But with Sprewell hobbling from an incomplete fracture in his left foot, Houston smothered by double teams, and an injured Ewing stuck on the bench in street clothes, Ward had to take charge.
Sometimes that meant setting up forward Larry Johnson (25 points) with an entry pass in the post or a kick-out for a three; sometimes it meant squaring up and firing away himself. Along with 16 points, Ward racked up seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. He also presented a maddening quandary for Pacers coach Larry Bird. Ward could streak past Mark Jackson for easy baskets, but when Bird used Jackson's quicker backup, Travis Best, Ward thwarted Best on the defensive end by preventing his penetration, leaving Indiana's offense hopelessly out of sync.
Conversely, the Knicks had never looked more confident or efficient—until the final quarter, when Ewing's absence came into play. With no consistent rebounding or defensive presence in the low post, New York watched the Pacers mount their comeback. Sprewell and Houston had burned Indiana badly on isolation plays in New York's 98-95 Game 3 victory, but in the final four minutes of Game 4, the Pacers opted to double-team the Knicks' two sharpshooters, cutting the lead to 85-80 with 2:20 left. That's when Ward delivered. "Basically, we said to them, 'Someone else is going to have to beat us,' " said backup power forward Austin Croshere. "And that's what happened."
So with the pair of road losses, the doubts about Indiana resurfaced, the questions began anew. In seizing the first two games the Pacers had seemed poised to exorcise their demons of a year ago, when New York, the eighth seed, shocked them in the conference finals. Remember how offensively challenged Indiana was at crunch time in that series, how it repeatedly relied on Reggie Miller to drop improbable three-point bombs with a couple of Knicks hanging on his spindly arms? To address that shortcoming the Pacers developed a second scorer, swingman Jalen Rose, to make New York pay for its double teams. Remember how forward Marcus Camby terrorized the Pacers, destroying them with his athleticism, rebounding and energy? Bird vowed Camby would not run wild again and gave everyone explicit orders: Keep him off the glass.
Remember how Indiana lost three of the four games in which Ewing was sidelined with a partially torn Achilles tendon? Surely the newer, wiser Pacers would exploit the absence of Ewing, who limped off the court with acute peroneal tendinitis and plantar fasciitis in his right foot after only 6� minutes in Game 2 last Thursday. Indiana's good fortune was quickly doubled in the second quarter of Game 3, when Camby slipped as he drove to the basket and was sent to the hospital with what would be diagnosed as a sprained right knee. No Ewing, no Camby, no way the Pacers could lose, right?
Well, yes, there was, and it was the same way they did in '99. The Knicks unleashed their smaller, quicker lineup and turned up the pressure. New York coach Jeff Van Gundy also had his troops play denial defense and thwart the entry pass to Pacers center Rik Smits, who had poured in 21 points in the first half. With Ewing and Camby out—Camby would return and play 18 minutes in Game 4—the task of fronting the 7'4" Smits fell to forward Kurt Thomas, who is seven inches shorter, and to 6'11" Chris Dudley, who had played all of 10 minutes in the postseason before playing 25 last Saturday. That pair limited Smits to two shots in the final quarter and pushed him so hopelessly out of position that he suffered the indignity of having one baseline jumper rejected by the 6'2" Ward.
The Knicks then leaned on the one-on-one wizardry of Sprewell and Houston, who had become suddenly more aggressive. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around they were both well into their shooting rhythm and were begging for the ball. Pull-ups, post-ups, slashes into the lane—they all yielded good looks. Sprewell (32 points) and Houston (28 points) combined for nearly 60% of their team's offense on 54.5% shooting, serving to rekindle that great debate: Are the Knicks more effective without Ewing? "When you take away our big guys, there's more room to get to the basket," Sprewell says. "And when we've got room, everything seems to come easier."
In the huddle Rose implored Bird to double-team Sprewell and Houston, but his suggestions were rebuffed. "We have to turn those two guys into playmakers," Rose fumed afterward. Asked if the topic of doubling them had come up before, Rose said, "It was a big item of discussion on the bus after we lost Game 6 last year."