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June 5, 2019

11.9 Seconds, And A Play To Remember

That's Larry Johnson (No. 2) right after sinking the 3-pointer and racing toward his teammate, Chris Childs, to celebrate. Childs, though, instantly toned it down. Amid the frenzy, he reminded LJ that there was still a foul shot to be made. (Photo: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden)

In those few precious seconds, with Larry Johnson in a slight crouch and calculating his next move, a strange, nervous quiet fell on Madison Square Garden. Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals had come to this — the Knicks down by three with 11.9 seconds remaining and Johnson squeezed into a small space between the 3-point line and the Indiana Pacers’ bench. No one in the building, it seemed, dared breathe.

Confronting him was the long-armed Antonio Davis, taller by two inches and on high alert for Johnson’s next step. Peering over Johnson’s shoulder was a legend, Larry Bird, the Pacers’ coach.

Providence and preparation, Johnson says now, had brought him to this critical point.

“I blocked everything out. That was the key. I was just in the moment. I had practiced that play and that shot over and over. I had envisioned getting the ball. I had envisioned taking that shot before I took it.”

Johnson twitched to his right, not once but four times, before sliding with two long steps to his left and then rising up. Images captured the ball floating in a high arc — it didn’t touch the Garden ceiling, but who could be sure — before it settled into the net.

 

A Few Deep Breaths

Today marks 20 years since the play, now ingrained as a part of Knicks mystique and a signature moment in Garden lore. It still stands as the greatest 4-point play in NBA history. As the ball dropped, tying the score at 91, and as an official signaled with a raised arm that Johnson had been fouled, 19,763 fans sprung from their seats with one thunderous roar.

The celebration was on — and then it wasn’t. With teammates mobbing him, Chris Childs took fast hold of him. “He said, ‘whoa bro,’ “ Johnson says, “and I snapped right back and switched gears.” Taking a few deep breaths of his own, Johnson then sank his free throw to put the Knicks ahead to stay.

 

Rocking The Garden

 

 

Instinct Takes Over

All along, Knicks fans, sensing something special in the making, adored this team — a gritty group with a New York edge. A cast that included Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell endured a string of injuries and barely made the playoffs. They remain the only 8th seed team to reach the NBA Finals.

More than one dose of magic was needed to get them there. In the decisive game of the first round series in Miami against the Heat, the Knicks were losing by a point and staring at 4.5 seconds on the clock. Childs inbounded a pass to Houston near the top of the key.

Recognizing that great plays often demand improvisation, the graceful Houston, who had been poised to set up for a jumper, curled and sliced between two defenders. His one-hand flutter of a shot, delivered off one foot, tapped on the front rim, and seemed to pause before it softly touched high on the backboard and in.

“I was trying to create a little pocket of space, but it was not the kind of shot I practiced,” says Houston. “It was purely opportunistic. I let instinct take over.”

Likewise, in those last desperate seconds in the conference finals, the play had been designed for Houston, but he couldn’t slip loose. Still seeing it clearly in his mind’s eye, Houston detected Johnson gliding toward the sideline where Childs was inbounding the ball.

 “That was his instinct,” says Houston. “He said to himself, I have to make this play.”

When the pass grazed the fingertips of a Pacer defender before Johnson grabbed it, The Garden shuddered.

“Antonio was taller, but I had quicker feet,” said Johnson, reliving the play once more. “I knew I had to shake him, and I knew time was running out. I was just completely focused.”

But to block everything out. Was that possible as bedlam swept over The Garden? Only later, he says, did he soak in what had just unfolded.

 “Yes,” he acknowledged. “I saw the fans and I felt the whole place shaking around me.”


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