The 1994 New York Knicks were a franchise were a thorn in their side and it was the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls eliminated them each of the previous three years. In 1991 it was the first round. In 1992 it was the second round, a series that went seven games. In 1993 it went six games, but the defeat was gut-wrenching, as New York lost Game 5 at home after forward Charles Smith was blocked (or fouled depending on your point of view) several times on the game’s final possession going for the winning points.
Chicago won the NBA title all three years, but with Jordan’s first retirement after the ’93 Finals, the door was open for New York to seize the moment and take over the East.
Pat Riley was in his fourth year as the head coach, after a history-making run with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1980s, where he won four NBA titles (1982, ’85, ’87, and ’88) and made the Finals in 1983 and 1984. Now he was trying to burnish his reputation by winning again.
And Riley’s own star player was hungry for a ring. Patrick Ewing, the 7’0” center who’d led Georgetown to dominance in the early 1980s hadn’t found the same team success at the NBA level. Ewing averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds a game in ’94, and now he had a coach who could coax the most out of a supporting cast around him.
Along with Ewing, power forward Charles Oakley and John Starks, completed the team’s core. Oakley hit the glass, while Starks provided points and assists in the backcourt. After that, Riley used six players more or less equally, including two who are familiar to basketball fans today. Doc Rivers is now the coach of the Boston Celtics, while Hubert Davis is an analyst on ESPN’s College Gameday each Saturday.
Rivers helped out in playmaking, while Davis was the team’s best three-point shooter. Smith was still a part of the team’s regular rotation, while power forward Anthony Mason hit the glass hard. Greg Anthony, the leader of UNLV’s 1990 national championship team, was an able floor manager and distributor, and Derek Harper chipped in further help from the perimeter.
The Knicks opened the season with seven straight wins and even though they later lost a December 17 game in Chicago, New York was 18-7 when the calendar turned. They took advantage of a soft schedule out west later in January and won six in a row. On February 20 they took their revenge on Chicago with an eighteen-point win over their nemesis.
Towards the end of the month, Riley’s team hit its first real adversity. A tough scheduling run resulted in four straight losses, the last three at Phoenix, Denver and Houston, all teams that were playoff-bound in the West.
But the Knicks answered with a 15-game win streak and treated the crowds at Madison Square Garden to wins over Chicago, Indiana and Cleveland, all playoff-bound, and a road win over Indiana. It wasn’t quite enough to get the #1 seed—Atlanta won a season finale game against Indiana that secured the tiebreaker, as both the Hawks and Knicks finished with 57-25 records.
The first round of the NBA postseason was still a best-of-five affair in 1994, and on a Friday night in Madison Square Garden, the Knicks beat the New Jersey Nets 91-80. New York followed it up on Sunday with 90-81 win. The Knicks missed a chance to sweep, dropping a one-point game in the Meadowlands, but they came back and sealed the deal in Game 4.
Now an old nemesis loomed. The Chicago Bulls were the opponent in the second round, and even without Jordan, it would be a series worthy of the hype and of the stakes.
The Knicks won close home games in Games 1 & 2, 90-86 and 96-91. With a chance to drive in the dagger back in Chicago in Game 3, the Bulls’ Toni Kukoc hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to steal a 104-102 win. The game was overshadowed by Pippen’s refusal to enter the game for the final play, angered by coach Phil Jackson’s decision to call the final shot for Kukoc.
The acrimony in Chicago might’ve been fun for New York fans to watch unfold, but it became less so after the Bulls won Game 4 and evened up the series.
Hostilities resumed for Game 5 at MSG. A year ago in this spot Knicks fans were outraged at the lack of a call in the closing seconds. Now there would be a call and it would be Chicago’s turn to vent. Trailing by a point on the final possession, Hubert Davis went up for a 23-footer. Pippen contested the shot and it missed. A foul was whistled on Pippen and Davis won the game at the line.
Phil Jackson drew a $10,000 fine for his critical remarks afterward. Most neutral observers were stunned, given the propensity of officials to swallow their whistle at the game’s most important moments. Whatever your opinion of the call, New York had clearly dodged a massive bullet and now had to cash in their chance.
Even though the Knicks were beaten in Chicago for Game 6, they came back home and won the decisive game by ten points. The hurdle that was the Chicago Bulls was finally cleared.
New York caught a break with #5 Indiana first delivering a mild upset of Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando in the first-round and then beating Atlanta. The Knicks would have homecourt advantage for the conference finals, and just as they had against the Bulls, they won the first two at home. Just as they had against the Bulls, they lost the next two back in the Midwest.
For Game 5…unlike against the Bulls, New York failed to defend their home floor. In an individual performance for the ages, Indiana’s Reggie Miller, one of the best outside shooters in the history of league, lit up New York. With 25 points in the fourth quarter alone, Miller led the way to a 93-86 win. The Knicks would have to win a Game 6 on the road, and then come back home to close it out.
No one would ever accuse Riley’s Knicks of producing the kind of basketball orchestra the coach used to oversee in Los Angeles. New York won with raw physicality and defense. It wasn’t always pretty—come to think of it, it wasn’t ever pretty—but the team was nothing if not tough. It showed in moments like this. They came up with a 98-91 win in Indianapolis, and then in a closely fought Game 7, finally prevailed 94-90. The Knicks were in the Finals.
The Houston Rockets were the nemesis in the NBA Finals and the Knicks would not have homecourt advantage against the team that was the second seed in the West. NBC, which televised the NBA at this time, had to have been thrilled that both top seeds, Atlanta and Seattle, had been eliminated. Not only did they get the nation’s #1 media market, but Ewing would go head-to-head with Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, giving the sport a great battle between two elite centers—and ones who had a history.
Ewing’s Georgetown beat Hakeem’s Houston in college, back in the 1984 NCAA final. In that game, the postgame coverage failed to appreciate how good Hakeem had been in defeat, something that would be a foreshadowing of how coverage of this series would be handled, only in reverse.
Olajuwon would be the leading scorer for the Rockets in every game, as he exceeded his 21 ppg average for the season and averaged 27 a night in the Finals. While Ewing might have “only” scored 19 a game, he was a defensive force throughout, beating Hakeem on the glass, 87-64 for the series and averaging over four blocks a game.
Houston won the first game, but a strong third quarter saved New York in Game 2 and the series would go to New York for the middle three games tied 1-1.The Rockets reclaimed homecourt advantage behind a big night from Olajuwon, who had 21 points/11 rebounds/7 assists and keyed a 93-89 Rockets win. Both championships were slipping away.
Oakley crashed the boards with ferocity in Game 4 and the team got a 91-82 win to even the series. Friday’s Game 5 was arguably the most unforgettable game in NBA Finals history. Not because of its caliber. It was a good game to be sure and behind Ewing’s 25 points/12 rebounds, the Knicks moved to within a game of the title. But the game was overshadowed by the televised car chase of O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco being chased down by police officers, and setting the stage for the retired football star and announcer’s highly publicized and inflammatory murder trial.
The 1994 NBA Finals returned to Houston on Sunday afternoon for the final two games. Game 6 usually presents the best chance for the road team to win in these spots—witness Dallas winning at Miami in 2011, or Boston not winning at Los Angeles in 2010—and the Knicks had their chance.
They trailed 86-84 and got the ball to Starks on the final possession for a three-point shot that would’ve sealed his place in NBA history. One year earlier Chicago’s John Paxson had hit a trey in exactly this spot. Olajuwon was having none of it. He stepped out and got a piece of the ball. We were going to a Game 7.
Riley’s team played a good game in the finale, but winning a Game 7 on the road in the NBA—especially in the Finals—takes a lot more than good. Olajuwon had a 25/10/7 night and the dreams of the 1994 New York Knicks died in a 90-84 Houston win.