Hardaway made all four of his shots while playing the final 16 minutes of the first half, helping the Indiana Pacers clinch home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs with a 109-93 victory over New York on Tuesday night.
“He came in and steadied our offense and really got us going,” coach Isiah Thomas said of Hardaway, who came out of retirement late last month after spending the first three-quarters of the season as a television studio commentator.
Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest scored 23 points each and Ron Mercer had 17 for the Pacers, who can move up to third place in the Eastern Conference if they finish tied with Philadelphia. Both teams conclude their regular seasons Wednesday night.
The Pacers outscored New York 48-36 when the 36-year-old Hardaway was on the floor. He finished with 12 points, four assists and three rebounds before sitting out the entire second half.
“With Tim it’s a matter of trying to save the gas that’s in the tank, and I thought he did a good job getting us back into the game and steadying the offense,” Thomas said.
Lee Nailon and Shandon Anderson scored 13 apiece to lead the Knicks, who learned earlier in the day that coach Don Chaney was given a two-year contract extension that will keep him with the club through the 2005-06 season.
The Knicks finished 37-45, a seven-game improvement off a year ago when they missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Hardaway helped Indiana turn things around after the Knicks picked on Jamaal Tinsley in the early going.
Tinsley was a defensive liability in the first quarter, unable to correctly defend the high pick-and-roll. Howard Eisley scored 10 points in the quarter and Kurt Thomas had eight, the two combining to take 15 of New York’s first 25 shots as the Knicks repeatedly ran the same play.
“Most young players have a difficult time in this league defending pick-and-rolls, and that’s why the league runs pick-and-rolls so much,” Isiah Thomas said.
Hardaway entered the game with Indiana trailing 18-8, and the Pacers got their deficit down to three points by the end of the first quarter.
Hardaway hit consecutive 3-pointers early in the second quarter to give Indiana its first lead since 4-3, and his third 3-pointer gave the Pacers the lead for good, 46-43 with 5:10 left.
“I feel like I’m establishing my role here. I just come in and give the team what we need: If we’re down, try to give them some energy; if we’re up, sustain what they had begun for us,” Hardaway said.
Hardaway played a season-high 23 minutes against Milwaukee in the Pacers’ previous game, and he was happy to find his outside touch against New York.
His role figures to increase in the postseason if Tinsley’s shortcomings continue to be exploited.
“I played 16 straight minutes tonight. If that’s not going to get me ready, what is?” Hardaway said.
Indiana closed the third period with a 6-0 run to take a 79-68 lead, and Mercer hit consecutive jumpers early in the fourth quarter to increase the Pacers’ lead to 92-76.
Chaney emptied his bench after that, and rookie guard Frank Williams was booed when he threw a no-look, behind-the-back pass that was intercepted byO’Neal and led to a breakaway dunk by Artest for a 99-82 lead with 5:12 left.
Houston scored his 10,000th point as a member of the Knicks. … Artest had a nonconfrontational evening, his only brush with danger coming when he collided with oversized actor Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos) while chasing a ball out of bounds. … The Pacers were without center Brad Miller, who is sitting out the final two games of the regular season to rest his sore feet. … Knicks F Shandon Anderson played in his 499th consecutivegame—the longest current streak in the NBA.