Relitigating the 1994 NBA Finals: Game 6 — Dreams & Nightmares

Do the New York Knicks win the 1994 NBA Finals after being one game away? You probably already know, but Abe Beame breaks down the game anyway.
By    May 19, 2020

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Abe Beame also still has a grudge against Isaiah Thomas.

When Knicks fans discuss what went wrong in this series, as well as the 1993 Eastern Conference Championship in Chicago, generally the conversation focuses on the players. Starks going ice cold in crucial moments, the greatness of Michael Jordan, the greatness of Hakeem Olajuwon, the inability of Charles Smith to hit a layup. But the three coaches involved in these two series were Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, coaches on anyone’s list for top 10 in the modern era. It’s easy to overlook the contributions they brought to these series, as well as the potential mistakes they made. But increasingly, as I’ve watched these games in sequence, perhaps unfair hindsite or stubborn contrarianism nags at me.

That we never discuss the in-game decision making of Riley in these pressure cooker series isn’t surprising. He was a legend before he arrived in New York. The captain of the Showtime Lakers with four of those legendary rings on his fingers. His backstory was baked into his mystique. He came from a dickensian upbringing in hardscrabble, rural New York. He was a 6’4 Guard/Forward who was drafted into the NBA and the NFL and found his greatest moment as a player on the Lakers, winning a championship with Jerry West, his good friend he’d guard in practice. 

So Riley had the aura and swag of a mythical high school football coach in Texas. Even in New York City, then starved for a title twenty years after the early 70s rings, he captured the imagination of the fanbase. And the hope was not ill placed. Be it because of his approach, his strategy, or the maturation of his star coming into the prime of his talent as the team coalesced around him, the Knicks became a powerhouse under Riley beginning in 92 when they saw a 12 game improvement in his first season and took the Bulls seven games in the playoffs.

The conventional wisdom among Knicks fans is that Riley came in and salvaged a team of underskilled thugs by weaponizing them with hard nosed, borderline criminal assault level team defense and smash mouth offense. That he did the best with the limited squad he had and wrung 110% out of the ragtag bunch he worked into almost champions. It’s a narrative that was forwarded by “the media” at the time and has remained gospel for Knick fans inheriting the wisdom from old heads. Then he left allegedly due to issues over control of an aging ship and a not insignificant difference in money offered by then brand new Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison, awed by Riley’s stardom and desperate to make a splash. Riley got the title of President and coach, in charge of personnel and a 40 million dollar five year contract to the Knicks best offer of five years 25. When Riley left the Knicks, he was the best paid coach in the league at two million a year.

This series is obsessed with sliding doors moments and this was a major one for the Knicks. Now, in the wake of bringing a championship to the Heat in 2006, then Lebron and two (but nearly four) more in 2012 and 2013, it’s easy to view Riley as a genius who would’ve changed the Knicks fortunes. 

But I wonder. I go back to Riley’s exit from L.A after the 89 season. At the time, the aging Lakers were attempting a three peat. With the Lakers up two in the third quarter of Game 2 Magic pulled a hamstring, joining Byron Scott out with the same issue. They went on to get smoked by the Pistons, losing 4-0 and starting the Bad Boy era, however short lived. 

Afterwards, there was finger pointing and recriminations. Namely, in the long break in between the end of the Western Conference Finals and the beginning of the Finals, Riley held a three day mini camp for his team of veteran stars that were coming off two consecutive championships, had the MVP in Magic Johnson, and had just gone 11-0 through the first three rounds. Kareem Abdul Jabaar, in his final season, minced no words. “Technically, Pat has to take the blame, he had the reins.” It underscored a joking nickname Michael Cooper gave to Riley, “Coach Hitler”.

Teams get the injury bug all the time. You can’t blame the randomness of the universe on Riley, but I do think there’s something in his rigidity, and how his players revolted in the aftermath that speaks to a flaw in his approach that has stood out to me watching these two series. Riley’s whole schtick was his drillmaster, no bullshit, no egos approach to the NBA. The Knicks faced two dynamic coaches who were innovators, coaches that could work with their players and adjust their game plans. These are two small examples but Rudy went small and opened up his bench faced with Barkley, Phil would hit the switch and run full court presses, unleashing Scottie and Mike to trap weak backcourts.

The cardinal sins Riley committed extend from this inflexibility. His rotations were extremely tight through two grueling playoff runs. He would almost never play more than 8 men, with that eighth man, be it Hubert Davis or Herb Williams, playing five minutes or less. Mase and Charles Smith would split, Greg Anthony would spell Derek Harper in short bursts, and that was basically it. Utility hustle and elbows wing Anthony Bonner almost never saw the floor in the Finals, and Rolando Blackmon literally never did the entire series. Riley famously calls not playing Ro in Game 7 when Starks went 1-18 his greatest mistake as the Knicks coach, but he also never played him in Game 1 when Starks went 3-18 and the Knicks lost by seven. Throughout the series, the Knicks would go on epic shooting slumps, particularly in second halves, that would either cost them some games or let Houston crawl back into others. For a team that was so reliant on jump shooting, it’s hard to imagine fresher legs wouldn’t have helped.

On offense the Knicks ran motion, but it was largely drive and kick. No secondary motion, and nearly all of it intended to get the ball into Patrick’s hands. There’s nothing wrong with this when you have a superstar of Ewing’s caliber, the Rockets were similarly built around Olajuwon, but while Hakeem often was given a spread floor and options around the perimeter, Ewing was working with a clogged lane, making doubling easier, and resulting in a lot of rote possessions ending in 12-15 foot jump shots. There was a lot of standing around and waiting for Starks to make things happen, which is interesting because the Knicks played with real flare and imagination in transition. Perhaps they didn’t have the horses and feared what theoretically more potent offenses like Chicago or Houston could do if they pushed pace, but at least in small doses it appeared to be an area to experiment with.

And that’s largely my point: There was no experimentation. The only difference between the approach in 93 and 94 is Derek Harper (Who we needed because a worn down Doc Rivers had torn his ACL). If the plan coming into the series was to front and deny Hakeem, that was the plan from Game 1-Game 7, even if it was Mase on him and a taller wing like Horry was having an easy time getting the entry lob over the top. If Hakeem looked gassed, the Knicks wouldn’t attack even though Oak, Patrick and Mase were able to move him around in the paint (Hakeem was an agile shot blocker who relied on timing and wingspan, not muscle. The culprit might be more Patrick preferring a pull up to bullying inside, but Hakeem could be bullied).

All this sounds like some schmuck on the internet taking pot shots from his couch at one of the greatest coaches of all-time, and it is that. But. The narrative of Riley as this indestructible career winner has colored how we now see him when we consider his handling of the Knicks. After he left New York, Riley coached some talented Heat teams that never even got to a Final during his first tenure between 95-2003. He gets Shaq thanks to Kobe and unceremoniously ejects Stan Van Gundy, who was rebuilding a fun and rangy team when it became clear Miami had a contender, and thanks to a bad call on Dirk in the Finals, brings Miami its first ring. 

Lebron comes a few years later, and every dumb sportswriter attributes it to some Friday Night Lights speech Riley delivers, dropping rings on the table, not a plan Lebron had devised to come play with his friends and win championships in Miami because Cleavland sucked and he’s a genius. And even then, the Heat win two of the four championships they arguably should’ve had. 

Riley has gotten all the credit for this success, but had a few things broken a little differently, you can look back at Riley’s post Lakers career and argue he was an old school coach who never adjusted to the new reality of the game and handling its players. I remember when the Heat lost to the Spurs, Lebron’s final game, when it became clear he was moving on, Riley held a press conference in which he gathered all the old fire and brimstone, the kid from Schenectady hardass drill sergeant command, and more or less openly challenged Lebron’s manhood. He patronized him, he insulted him, he condescended to him, and months later Lebron was in Cleveland. The lecture was about toughness, tenacity and sticking with something even when it gets hard. The irony was lost on no one but him. 

0:17: There has been a big break between the last post and this one. It’s because I was really not looking forward to watching this game. 

0:43: Costas just said the Knicks play some of the best defense the league has ever seen and is long on intangibles and it kind of feels like he reached back through time and poked me directly in the fucking eye. 

1:41: The very first shot in the game is a Hakeem block on Pat in the post. Read nothing into this. 

2:51: Kenny Smith hit a jumper which is the equivalent of Rudy making a tackle. Crowd just exploded. God, we look so tight and fucking awful. 

3:07: Even Derek Harper is off. 

4:04: Patrick with a fucking DIME.

4:41: It’s amazing the Knicks only lose this game by two because it feels like we’re going to lose by 100,000 points. 

4:53: So Hakeem was just on Starks on the perimeter, and he ends up on Starks on the perimeter at the end of the game. Were the Rockets just switching everything? Was this something we could’ve capitalized on with, I don’t know, say, a roll?

6:07: Oak just laid up a breakaway dunk. 

7:01: Patrick in the post with the ball on a string. Looks like we’re beginning to settle in.

7:21: 3 BLOCKS FOR PATRICK.

7:34: Kenny’s jumper is way off, the Earth is healing.

7:46: We’re up three points. End the game. Knicks are NBA champions again.

8:15: By Game 6 in this series, Patrick Ewing had already set an NBA Finals record for the most blocked shots in a series, over Kareem’s former record of 23 blocked shots in 1980. He would end the series with 30, which is still a Finals record today. I’m crying a little.

9:35: The Rockets definitely understand the stakes here. Swarming on D.

12:54: There is just no fucking life on offense. No playmaking or movement or creativity whatsoever. Swing around to the first open jump shot and pull, and this is a game when everyone’s tight and you have to seek out buckets. Even when it falls it feels bad because it isn’t good process. 

13:00: The Rockets are getting booed on their home floor by the poor long suffering Rockets faithful. Hilarious. 

13:21: Better Call Rudy Tomjanovich

13:56: Pretty sure they were playing “Cantaloop” by Us3 during that timeout. What a time.

14:41: Fuck. Hakeem with a circus shot on the baseline. Watch out for the percolator. 

15:23: Oak has it going. For those keeping score at home the baldie has grown out to a full scalp and beard scruff so his entire head looks like a five o’clock shadow. It’s a great look I myself favor.

16:09: A non-existent hand check foul on Harper followed by an illegal defense. Ladies and gentleman, David Stern!

17:34: It’s funny that Mad Max kinda sucked in this series. I always remembered him as a killer.

19:27: Called a very minor shuffle on a Starks travel. I feel like Lil Rel Howery in Get Out.

20:43: Nothing to see here just a fucking tech on Mase as the Knicks bring the ball down after a Rockets score can’t possibly see any agenda or motivation at play behind this series of ridiculous calls.

21:18: Guokas just called out the calming presence and commanding leadership Patrick bring to the team. CAN YOU HEAR THAT OAK??

23:16: I honestly think if they started Cassel we would’ve been swept. 

23:45: Can’t front, Houston had the Summit rocking for this one. 

23:45: So this led me to check why the Rockets had home court, which ended up being a crucial, decisive advantage with incredibly tight games 6 and 7 at home. They finished the season at 58-27. The Knicks finished 57-25. Fucking kill me.

24:56: The incredible onslaught of illegal defense calls continues. A testament to how impossible it was defending Hakeem or Patrick with one man.

25:21: Lmaooooooo. ANOTHER ILLEGAL DEFENSE. I swear this has to be some kind of record. I tried to look this up to confirm but apparently Basketball Reference hasn’t evolved to a place where they track the number of arcane arbitrary and now extinct defensive violations in ancient series. What the fuck is the internet actually for?

26:06: I want to give a brief shoutout to Lisa Johnson Smith, who Charles Smith has been married to since 1992. If he is as erratic and frustrating at home as he was as a player she must be having a real trying time during this quarantine and I just want you to know I’m praying for you Lisa.

26:29: Nice chasedown block by Horry. Because I know how this game will end literally every time we miss a shot or an opportunity to get a stop it’s like getting shot in the stomach. 

28:48: How the fuck can Cassell possibly be a rookie? 

29:25: Rockets were smart to immediately start attacking the rim the second Patrick sits. 

32:55: Has any rookie drafted in the 20s or later ever had the impact on a Finals series that Cassell had on this one? It’s really crazy this is never brought up when we discuss this series.

33:56: Cassell delivers a laser overhead needle thread from the top of the key hitting Olajuwon perfectly in the hands between Patrick and Oak for an easy dunk. He is taking over the game.

35:00: Cassell just stripped Patrick in the post for a turnover. I’m beginning to actively hate him.

35:40: Terrible bailout foul called on Patrick guarding Hakeem who turned it over. We never had a fucking chance.

37:21: Derek is quiet tonight, was on the bench for GA for what felt like way too long, and with Cassell going in it’s hard to think of a bigger story for the game thus far. 

37:49: Thorpe just missed two free throws on yet another bullshit bailout call and in a scrum for the rebound Oak ended up saving the ball to Herrera who flushed it. That sequence literally cost us the championship. I think of all the games I’ve reviewed in this series, this being the 12th, this is the most painful.

38:05: I’ve never seen Derek Harper this pissed off. It’s like he can feel what’s coming and he’s fighting against history in this Youtube video to prevent it from happening on some Terminator shit.

39:23: Derek is dancing on them. Fight for the future Derek. 

39:43: Carl Herrera is 5-5. I’ve never had the experience of having someone I forgot existed become someone I’d consider inventing time travel to go back and murder as a baby, which is what has happened with Carl Hererra in this series.

40:05: Knicks are all off. The ball is so stagnant. My eyes start bleeding a little when we get into this settle and pull up mode.

42:39: Starks with a gorgeous scoop. Good omen.

45:14: A brutal, brutal half. We scored 46 points. 15 in the second quarter. Just washed on both sides of the ball and it’s a small miracle we’re only down 10. We lost this game well before Starks got blocked. 

45:20: This copy skipped the halftime show which is kind of a bummer.

46:04: Briefly forgot Kenny Smith exists. 

46:50: Something replays have eliminated is the time honored referee make up call of the out of bounds they classify as off the team with possession because the contact that causes the out of bounds is too minimal to call. Would be interested to see someone smarter than I am study how this has effected calling ticky tack fouls or lead to teams getting fucked on out of bounds calls where an uncalled foul was involved. 

47:18: Patrick had such incredible touch. It’s a fucking Twilight Zone episode that the thing many haters now remember him for is missing a finger roll. 

51:03: Charles Smith just blew an uncontested layup and the cup which led to a transition layup by the Rockets. How many fucking rings would we have if not for blown Charles Smith layups?

55:18: Jesus Christ we are frigid.

57:10: I can’t believe how much burn Kenny is getting. Tomjanovich coached a very good series but his instance on sticking with Kenny was probably his worst decision.

59:01: …….. ILLEGAL DEFENSE

1:01:06: The previously taped interview they’re playing during the game is with Derek talking about how to read a player’s body language to gauge when to move in for a steal and he totally sounds like Rodman explaining the science of rebounding in The Last Dance. 

1:01:40: Obligatory heartbreaking Knicks comeback run underway.

1:02:47: Harper just took a Mike Bibby shot to the face + foul call. We definitely didn’t bring out A game but man, the industrial basketball complex really did not want the Knicks to end it this night.

1:04:07: Ewing just hit an impossible 20 foot pull up with Hakeem all over him on a pick and pop with the shot clock winding down. Putting the team on his back like Greg Jennings. 

1:06:23: Derek is off. Absolutely immaculate drive and wrap around dump to Oak by Mase that no other 6’7 250 combo point forward could’ve made in NBA history.

1:07:41: I really hope somehow Carl Herrera follows my work reviewing 26 year old Knicks series under an assumed name on the last great hip hop blog and has read this far without skimming so he can hear this clearly: FUCK YOU CARL HERRERA!

1:09:56: Still mad about the moving pick call at the end of game 3. 

1:10:13: If you’re reading along with the watch and love great rebounds Oak just made an all-timer. He wanted this so bad.

1:12:36: In Greg Anthony’s mind he’s 8 feet tall and can bench press a bus.

1:16:13: Starks on fire. Hit a 3 to bring us within 2. He’s the reason we’re in this game right now.

1:18:17: Charles Smith fumbles it out of bounds. 

1:19:58: Why on Earth is Kenny Smith in this game.

1:20:50: Starks is hitting everything. By far the streakiest player I ever watched in my life. When he was hot he was God disguised as a man and when he was cold he was absolute garbage.

1:21:59: Hakeem slips in around a swarm of Knicks to grab a tough offensive board and gets hacked going back up. We were so close. This is agony.

1:22:39: The Rockets shot 31 fucking free throws in that crucial Game 3.

1:23:45: I remembered this series a lot differently. Maxwell and Elie seemed like villains who killed us at the time but they were pretty consistently non factors.

1:24:42: Kenny Smith really deadass just hit a fucking 3. 

1:26:20: Still mad. I can’t believe Kenny hit the dagger.

1:26:57: We missed our last 6 shots. You can actually feel the desperation wafting off the screen.

1:27:35: Starks with a huge strip leading to a turnover off Maxwell. As bad as he is in Game 7 he was the hero in Game 6.

1:28:04: And he just drilled a 3. Dude is unconscious. He scored 16 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.

1:30:59: Kenny just took and barely missed what would’ve been the definitive knockout punch. I’ll say this for the guy, no matter how much he sucked he was not afraid of the moment. Still astounding Cassell isn’t playing.

1:31:50: Welp. Here we go. Five seconds left. Knicks down 2. Why the fuck did we not go for the tie, the Rockets were totally wilting and we had all the momentum.

1:32:22: Just fucking crazy. Patrick set a pick beyond the arc and Hakeem switches onto Starks. He still has about two seconds and a lane to try to beat him inside but pulls up with Hakeem still within reach. If Starks had hit this three to end the series and win a ring it would’ve been one of the most iconic, paradigm shifting moments in NBA history. Instead Hakeem gets a piece, the ball ricochets around and the clock expires. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of a ten year old’s heart breaking.

Ewing vs. Olajuwon Watch: Patrick: 17 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks. Hakeem: 30 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 blocks.

Olajuwon by a mile. It was even worse than it looks on the stat sheet. Ewing was MIA on offense and that 17 was about as quiet as 17 points can be. Starks was the only reason we were remotely in this game at the end. When people misremember this series as Hakeem destroying Patrick they’re probably referencing this game.

Final Thoughts: A crushing blow for sure. To get that close to stealing a championship and having it slip from your grasp is a mental challenge the greatest teams would have trouble recovering from. But look, it was about as bad as the Knicks offense gets, the defense was exemplary and the Rockets have all the pressure on them against a seasoned, battle tested Knicks team going into a decisive Game 7. What could possibly go wrong?

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