Relitigating the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals: Game 5, the Charles Smith Game

Abe Beame continues his in-depth look at the classic series between the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls.
By    January 7, 2019

If you are insane enough to continue reading this dissection of a quarter century old NBA championship series, you are wise enough to kick a few bucks to the POW Patreon

If Adidas reintroduced the Intruder, Abe Beame would buy three pairs right now.

Earlier in the series, I commented on the remarkable career paths of its two premiere sidekicks: John Starks and Scottie Pippen. Both men were relatively unheralded and crawled out of the backwaters of the NCAA to achieve incredible things in the league. They were both Southerners, both had their own brand of unassuming demeanor off the court and absolutely ferocious games on it. But the similarities more or less end there.

Pippen was an evolutionary player. There aren’t many, if any historical comparisons to his game. He has that long, lean frame like Dr. J, or even Michael, but no real comps in terms of his style of play. On offense, Magic is close. Pippen is the same type of point forward, if a little rangier, with a bit more speed and explosiveness trading off for Magic’s otherworldly polish and vision. In this particular season he led the Bulls in assists. During this series, those moments when he’d fluidly step into point, bringing up the ball and running the offense, were thrilling. It’s unfair. Some sort of cheat code where a lineman announces himself eligible and promptly burns a cornerback on an out in Madden.

On defense, Pippen has no peer. There were plenty of guys who were great defenders before him but he was probably the first position-less freak who could guard 1-5. The fact that he never won Defensive Player of the Year is probably the worst career snub in the history of the NBA. He took the opposition’s best player every night and was the net that allowed Jordan to run all over the court reaching and occasionally stealing because he had Scottie there to react with his insane fast twitch whenever he’d gamble for another stat and miss. Even today, there are a handful of guys who have played in the NBA who can match Pippen’s defensive ferocity and versatility on D. In fact, I can think of only one obvious comp in Kawhi.

You don’t need a deep well of history to draw from, or a book of poetry to explain John Starks. The league was full of guys like Starks from the late 90s back to its inception. Most of them, you’ve never heard of. And why would you? He’s a slightly taller version of an average schmuck playing pick up on any court in America. A touch stronger perhaps, a touch faster, but nothing that would scream to you, or any NBA franchise in 1988 when he graduated from Oklahoma State University after attending three other colleges (including a break from school he took working at a Safeway).

The Tulsa kid went undrafted, then signed with the Golden State Warriors and had to play behind eventual Rookie of the Year Mitch Richmond. Starks spent 89-90 on the Iowa Cedar Rapids in the CBA. Three years later he would dunk on Jordan in these Eastern Conference Finals. The year after that he was an NBA All-Star, in 1996-97 he was the 6th Man of the Year.

Oakley was often seen as the brute force that embodied the work ethic and relentlessness of this Knicks squad. But watching this series in particular it’s obvious that Starks was the heart and soul. If you want to talk about a guy who left everything on the court, who played every possession like it was his last, people talk a lot of shit about Jordan and his competitiveness and desire. NOBODY wanted this series, or this game, or to win every minute exchange on every fucking possession more than Starks did.

There’s no other way he could’ve been out there with freaks like Jordan and Pippen unless you had a heart three times the size of anyone else on the floor. His shooting touch came and went; he could play perfect defense for his size, speed and strength and on a good night Jordan could still drop 50 on him, but he got us right to the edge of getting past these assholes. The next year we would, and he was one shot away from beating Olajuwon and bringing what would’ve been a generation defining ring to the Garden. Not some blue chip prospect from the hallowed arenas of the ACC — little pitbull John Starks from Oklahoma.

But what stands out to me about both players now is how impossible their paths to glory were. I’m not sure how common a guy emerging from the obscurity of the CBA or as a walk-on from a tiny Southern school was then. In my lifetime, the only other obvious player that comes to mind is Chris Childs who was a standout talent in the CBA before catching on with the Nets. Pippen was a work study scholarship his first year at Central Arkansas and served as a team student manager. Then he grew 7 inches over the course of a year and garnered enough strong draft buzz in the three ensuing years at Central Arkansas that Jerry Krause felt he needed to trade up three spots to grab Pippen with the fifth draft pick from the Sonics in 1987.

Starks had no such issues. His college career was checkered with incidents including a fellow student’s stereo theft that got him five days in jail and a weed bust. But you get the sense that even without those, an athlete who attends four colleges in four years is fighting more than personal issues. At his size, at his very best, he was a 36% 3 point shooter. Gor his career, he was 34%. At this point it’s a cliche to say New Yorkers love intangibles. Generations from now (and actually right now) analytics heads will never understand the cult of personality around Derek Jeter, and even more pronounced, no NBA nerd will ever understand the agony and the ecstasy of living and dying by the hand of John Starks.

A popular hypothetical NBA nerds like to kick around is what would have happened if the Sonics had kept that fifth pick rather than trade it to the Bulls in ’87 and Pippen had gotten the opportunity to play with Kemp and Payton later in his career. It’s a fraught scenario, primarily because you’d assume having Pippen over the great Olden Polynice would’ve yielded a better record and weaker draft position for Seattle. But that wasn’t the Sonics draft pick in the first place. It came courtesy of the Knicks, who dealt the pick to Seattle in 86 for the great Gerald Henderson. Henderson was a glorified rental who averaged 10-6-2 the one full year he played for us. Who knows what the Knicks would’ve done with that pick. But if we had ended up with Scottie, alongside Doc, Oak, Ewing, and John Starks, these posts could’ve read very differently.

0:00: And we’re back! I should ask Jeff if anyone is actually reading these. I highly doubt.  [ed note: no clue!] When I finish perhaps I will because I’m curious but I don’t want a hard “NO! Duh.” To discourage me from finishing. The classic NBA on NBC intro is the best. Early 90s editing wizardry, kind of looks like a mix of the effect they used to make the “Take on Me” video and claymation scored to John Tesh’s classic. We’re back in the Garden! Go New York, go New York, go.

1:06: The Garden has somehow added over a thousand seats in the last 25 years. Anyone who knows how fucking expensive a single Knicks ticket is can feel free to do the math on that.

1:56: Goldsberry before Goldsberry. NBC had this Game 4 shot chart graphic ready for pre-game and I’ll admit, even for the world’s most cold hearted Jordan hater it’s pretty impressive. Mike D’Antoni would stroke out just looking at it, but impressive nonetheless.

2:18: Mike makes an interesting point. Most of this work was catch and shoot in Game 4, Jordan did very little off the bounce.

2:42: Crowd shots: Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, some tanned dude with his head down who must be famous, Michael Douglas. Man, it is good to be out of Chicago.

2:59: The Bulls had lost their last 6 in New York going into this game. It’s sad to know what’s about to happen but be able to imagine what seemed possible at this moment across New York in 1993. It’s Fitzgerald shit.

3:43: Random interesting factoid. This game was the first the Knicks ever played in June, the latest they ever played in a calendar year. So much to draw from that, the change in schedule and playoff structure over the course of the years following the Knicks championship run, the dearth of success in the 80s, and as we’ve discussed, the complete lack of postseason experience this entire team had going into this series.

4:45: Marv and Mike just criticized Ewing for a passive few games in Chicago, which despite being statistically sound performances are not without merit.

4:46: Ominously, Charles Smith just iced a J.

5:28: Charles Smith just threw a crazy spin on the baseline and finished a heavily contested lay in. Charles Smith has it going tonight! This must be why they call it the Charles Smith Game!

7:12: Oakley just beasted out Charles Smith because he spaced on taking the ball out, which is supposed to be his responsibility. Maybe this is why they call it the Charles Smith game.

8:17: Goddamn. Oak drops the hammer. Haven’t seen nearly enough of that in this series.

9:59: Charles Smith is on fire early! Another up and under. What a performance thus far.

10:40: Uh-oh. Pippen has got it going early.

12:38: Starks splashing on a careless hero pull-up. Knicks actually cooking in transition.

13:15: Ewing with a classic doubled up dump down assist to a cutter in the lane out of pressure.

15:16: Holy fucking shit. The refs just called Jordan for palming the ball!!!!!!!!!!!

23:40: LOL. During this whole ridiculous gambling saga where Jordan froze out the media he only spoke to one reporter. You guessed it America: Ahmad Rashad.

24:54: Everyone in the building just assuming Pat had an And 1 on a filthy post move. Surprise! 3 second violation. Luckily this won’t come back to haunt the Knicks.

25:44: Crazy. Got Jordan again on a palm.

26:57: Bill Murray in attendance wearing a ridic trucker hat and red button down/tie combo that evokes off the charts douche.

29:09: Mason is rocking a vintage, gorgeous “MASE” with a basketball cut into his head for this game. I wonder where his barber is now.

30:06: Bulls offense in a draught, Knicks failing to fuck their bitches in some Gucci flip flops.

34:16: Absolutely horrific bullshit nothing offensive foul on a Greg Anthony drive, but it’s interesting watching him getting a little unadulterated burn at the point. GA had a bit more handle and finesse than Doc’s grit and grind style, would’ve liked to see him get a little more room to operate in this series. Might’ve helped manage and ultimately beat the Chicago press.

34:23: Charles Smith just picked up his third on a moving screen. He’s in foul trouble. Hope he’ll be around to finish the game. But by the way, FUCK that was a terrible call. That would’ve made for the cleanest set pick set in 2018 had it come tonight.

35:37: Smith was a force in this series, regularly getting upwards of 15. He, Oak and Mason just couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. Officiating was ruthless towards the frontcourt trio.

36:51: Patrick Ewing is magic.

37:15: It’s a sad day when I can realistically say Bill Cartwright is keeping the Bulls in this game.

37:54: Or is this The Bill Cartwright Game?

38:44: Mason just sliced through the Bulls post defense. The score is incredible. Feels like the Knicks should be up 15.

39:59: Incredibly, New York and Chicago finished the season 21st, and 22nd from the free throw line.

41:10: Man, Jordan is off. Bulls are being carried by these dogshit calls.

42:19: GA had it going this night.

43:07: Pippen just rose up and crammed on Starks.

44:20: Patrick dancing on Cartwright but again, starts with a beautiful entry mova and pass from GA. Still, Cartwright’s best half by far in this series. 5-6 for 13. In many ways the only reason the Bulls are in the game right now.

45:22: Up to this moment the Knicks had won 27 in a row at home.

46:14: GA with a gorgeous perimeter rebound, penetrate and dump off to Mase. Where the fuck has this been all series??

47:12: Halftime. A one point game for the Knicks. Can’t help but feel like it’s a missed opportunity.

48:16: Bulls suddenly all over the glass to recover two straight possessions. The shooting is just off though. You can almost see a lid on the rim outside the paint. This one was so ripe for the taking.

48:44: Pippen goes full court and beats two defenders, dribbling at a sprint for the rim, then is strong enough to fight off pressure on both sides and controlled enough to finish with a graceful scoop lay-in. He was incredible.

50:00: Ahmad just had an courtside report and he quoted Jordan saying the Knicks are cracking under pressure. As much as I hate them both, it’s hard to quibble. The Knicks are pulling up for short arm jumpers when they should be taking it to the rack, making bad decisions in the open court, they look shaken. Except for Game 3, which ironically was the worst Jordan performance I’ve ever seen in my life, all these games have been winnable. The Bulls unquestionably have the two best players on the floor, but it would be just as hard to argue they have the better team. They Knicks have the talent and the depth, the home court and at one point, a two game advantage and they’ve pissed it all away. Supremely frustrating.

51:55: Horace with the cram. You wanna talk about a guy who has melted into the background throughout the series. Sometimes I forget he’s on the team.

52:58: Weird. Jordan said his goal for this game was to get 10 assists. Like I get the idea behind it but it’s a strange, stat hungry, Russell/Wilt type of comment any other player would get killed for (To be fair, he’s going to get it).

54:25: When Patrick fights to establish his position in the post he makes it look so easy. Riley’s biggest failure in this series was not making the Bulls meet the Knicks on their level. They couldn’t have possibly contended with a methodical ground and pound featuring the Knicks four headed monster of Ewing, Oak, Mase and Smith just taking turns beating up the undersized and skilled Bulls defenders down low.

54:54: Pippen with more video game shit.

55:04: Jordan is 4-14. Fucking kill me.

55:32: Charles Smith was a fascinating player who came before his time. Or maybe he came at his exact time because he was a freak show novelty who could bury the 18 footer he just hit, but if he was playing with a bunch of relatively sized and skilled guys in the modern NBA he’d probably get blown off the court. Still it’s fun to watch and you almost understand the sense of wonder he provoked in context watching him navigate the Bill Cartwrights and BJ Armstrongs of a rigid, antiquated NBA of yesteryear.

56:53: Marv just dropped a crazy stat that 25 of 27 teams who won Game 5 went onto win the series in best of 7s. I wonder if a similar percentage holds up today. And if not, what has changed?

57:19: Welp. Just in time for a Stern special, bullshit charge on Doc Rivers challenging a Jordan who was up in the air and still managed to draw a fucking charge.

59:04: Marv: “Jordan, now 1-1 since getting the wind knocked out of him.” The hero worship is really nauseating.

1:01:52: Ewing dancing with the And-1 on Stacey King. It’s hard to make out but if you read lips he tells King “I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip flops.”

1:02:27: Ewing leaves a fucking bunny on the rim in transition. Patrick giveth, Patrick taketh away.

1:03:01: 3 Point game going into the 4th. You can feel the stakes of this one. In ever series there’s a game, and often even a moment when the series is won or lost. Sometimes it’s obvious and dramatic like a Game 7 buzzer beater but often they happen in these smaller moments in the middle of the series. This feels like one of those.

1:04:30: Great team D from Chicago. Everyone is on top of their rotations, absolutely choked out the Knicks on an extended possession and made Doc settle for a well guarded shitty pull up. Riley just didn’t have a lot in the bag when it came to offensive creativity and play design. At least in New York.

1:05:23: NBC just flashed an interesting stat. New York had a +20 rebounding margin which has shrunk in each game of the series down to +2 in Game 4. They’re currently out rebounding New York in this game. With the size and skill disparity in the front court that had to be an area of strength for the Knicks.

1:05:45: Starks just bricked a technical back rim. The free throw shooting in this series has been ghastly.

1:09:12: Ewing nails a huge clutch three. I maintain he could’ve been a game changing stretch 5. Dude had a heater and deep range. He shot seven total threes this entire season.

1:09:37: Ewing with a tough rebound in traffic.

1:10:01: Jordan gets a breakaway layup on a busted play. He’s scored the last 14 points for the Bulls. Yuck.

1:10:30: Incredible sequence. 6’5 Trent Tucker gets a strip and what looks like an easy layup in transition, Starks flies in from out of nowhere for a crazy chase down block. All fucking heart.

1:12:03: Pippen is currently running point.

1:13:50: Ewing cookin in the post. Knicks within 2.

1:14:07: Spike is amped right now and his shirt looks like the opening credits for Martin.

1:14:37: It’s been 11 minutes of game time since anyone other than Jordan scored. Even Marv and Fratello are saying he needs to get his teammates involved. It’s incredible that with Jordan’s penchant for occasional selfishness it never really bit him on the ass on a big stage during these title runs.

1:14:59: Another huge shot from Patrick, he steps into a J at the top of the key, And 1. Anyone who says this guy couldn’t deliver on a big stage should watch this quarter. He dragged the Knicks back into it and has his prints on every play.

1:15:36: Jordan drops his shoulder and Doc at the top of the arc. No brainer offensive foul. You’ll never guess how they actually called it.

1:15:48: Patrick with a huge rebound. He is feeling it.

1:18:25: Crowd chanting “BULLSHIT” at yet another miserable non foul on Jordan.

1:19:09: With a free throw Pippen breaks a 14 minute streak where no other Bull scored. How did we lose this game.

1:20:05: Outrageous time for a loose ball foul on Mase who had an easy offensive rebound. Knicks are in the penalty so Grant to the line. I wondered how the Knicks lost this game, the answer is the officiating kept the Bulls close enough for us to blow it. Really shitty.

1:22:01: BJ Armstrong is apparently still playing in this series because he just woke up and hit the dagger corner three of his life.

1:23:12: Charles Smith just missed a gigantic free throw off a loose ball foul. At least that will definitely be the least clutch thing he does in this game.

1:24:02: Ewing with a fucking MONSTER block on Stacey King. What a performance by Patrick.

1:24:25: Knicks with the ball down one, 21 seconds on the clock.

1:24:35: Patrick gets the ball to Charles Smith in the paint, beautiful look, Smith goes up on a contested lay-in, someone gets a piece of it but he comes down with it and has beautiful position in front of the hoop.

1:24:37: Smith gathers to go up again. He looks like he just sipped his whole face in a soup bowl filled with blow.

1:24:50: Smith gets blocked from behind, I think by Pippen? It looked an awful lot like someone on the Bulls had possession of the ball out of bounds.

1:25:13: Smith looks like he’s about to cry. How are they not showing this over and over like the Zapruder film?

1:25:28: So Grant contests the first attempt, Jordan reaches in and swats it loose as Smith is going up for his second attempt, then Pippen blocks Smith twice from behind. A LOT OF CONTACT. Grant gets the recovered loose ball out before he steps out of bounds. Jesus Christ that was fucking brutal.

Final Thoughts: In the long and agonizing history of my Knicks fandom, this has gotta be in the top 5. The Bulls completely shit the bed down the stretch, Patrick has a monster, clutch as humanly possible performance and we can’t win the game that swings the series. When people talk about victory being a question of who wants it more you can show them this tape and consider how random and stupid legacy and sports and really human existence in general is. If the Knicks take this game and maintain home court it potentially changes everything, the course of history and certainly my childhood. Fuck you Charles Smith.

But I guess it’s not all bad. Knicks lose a heartbreaker. They clearly had a deeper and more polished squad. A lot to build on heading back to Chicago. What could possibly go wrong?

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!