Amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.
Today, we revisit Larry Johnson’s 4-point play.
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
It might be the most iconic play Madison Square Garden has ever seen.
It also may be the last truly great moment in New York Knicks history.
It was 21 years ago this month. The eighth-seeded Knicks had upset the Miami Heat in the first round of the post-lockout playoffs and swept an underwhelming Atlanta Hawks team in the second round. Having earned a road split to start the 1999 Eastern Conference finals against a second-seeded Indiana Pacers team that had given Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls dynasty all it could handle the previous season, New York was without Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, who ruptured his Achilles in a narrow Game 2 loss.
Anchored by the emergence of backup center Marcus Camby, the gritty Knicks held the Pacers scoreless for a three-minute stretch, slicing an eight-point deficit down to one with the shot clock turned off. A pair of Mark Jackson free throws gave Indiana a 91-88 lead with 11.9 seconds left. New York’s final timeout brought the ball to midcourt, where coach Jeff Van Gundy had drawn a play for Allan Houston.
Indiana’s defense had different ideas. Reggie Miller shadowed Houston, and Jalen Rose tipped Charlie Ward’s inbounds pass before it found Johnson’s hands. The injury-plagued former No. 1 pick was manning center in a small-ball lineup, defended by Antonio Davis. Johnson held the ball for a few jab-stepping seconds, pump faked, took one dribble to his left, drew contact and launched untouched into his shooting form. Referee Jess Kersey’s whistle blew, and Johnson found the bottom of the net.
The Garden crowd erupted in a way that makes you long for a return to Knicks glory, 20,000 strong collectively leaping from their seats to match the magnitude of one of the Mecca’s greatest moments.
“It still sends chills up and down my spine when I see it,” Van Gundy would later say of the play.
In the midst of the mayhem, Knicks point guard Chris Childs stopped Johnson mid-celebration to remind him about the free throw. He collected himself and converted the biggest 4-point play in NBA history with 5.7 seconds remaining. “Ugliest free throw I’ve ever made in my life,” he later told MSG Network.
Jackson’s response missed the mark on the other end, and the Knicks took a 2-1 series lead.
“It’s the loudest I’ve heard it,’’ Johnson, who was serenaded with “Larry” chants at length following the game, told the New York Post on the shot’s 20th anniversary. “I’m not just saying that. I’ve been on the bench. I’ve been in-game. You can be totally focused on the game and all of a sudden at the Garden, you’ll snap and go, ‘Whoa!’ It’s super loud and you can’t help but take a second to admire what’s going on. After I made the free throw, Spike Lee hugged me and that’s when I was like, ‘This is incredible.’”
Pacers coach Larry Bird took immediate umbrage with Kersey’s call.
“That was a bad call,” Bird told reporters in the aftermath of a series-swinging whistle. “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.”
Davis also believes the call should have been made either on the floor or not at all.
“I’ve seen it several times,’’ he told the New York Post years later. “I’m not in agreement it was an and-one. When I keep running it back in my head, I was in good position. My hand was straight up and down. Whether there was contact on his arm — if my hand is straight up, then his hand follows through and hits mine — is it a foul? If we were in the same position, would I change anything other than the outcome? No. I’d change nothing. My hand was straight up and down. I didn’t go for no fakes. I was solid.’’
Johnson sees it as a simple continuation call. Either way, it was a prayer answered, and LJ, who had converted to Islam, responded in kind, praising Allah in his postgame interview with NBC’s Jim Gray.
A framed display of the famed 4-pointer is enshrined in the Garden, along with 20 other legendary moments in the building’s history, including John Starks’ 1993 dunk over the Bulls. Davis, likely with tongue firmly planted in cheek, told MSG Network that when he joined the Knicks in 2005, he asked the Knicks to remove a picture of the play, if only so he did not have to be reminded of it on a daily basis.
New York went on to win the series in six, avoiding a Game 7 in Indianapolis and advancing to the Finals. Johnson and his underdog Knicks lost in five games to Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs, and the franchise has not seen a title series since. Back issues forced LJ into retirement just 10 years into a once-promising career, but those four points made Grandmama a Knick for life.
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