Why Jrue Holiday's steal reminded me of Charles Smith

Milwaukee's stunning Game 5 road win gave me visions of 1993.

“Ewing for Smith. Smith. Stripped. Smith. Stopped. Smith stopped again! By Pippen! What a play by Scottie Pippen! Final seconds: Jordan, for Armstrong — and the Bulls have defeated the Knicks!”

— Marv Albert, June 2, 1993


The final seconds in a rubber match Game 5 were ticking away when it happened: as memorable a defensive play as a generation of fans had ever seen. The team making the play had lost Games 1 and 2 on the road before tying the series at home to send the series back to Game 5 all tied up. They needed to steal Game 5 in enemy territory. They battled all night to do it. A championship was on the line.

I am describing Jrue Holiday’s steal.

I am describing Charles Smith.

I don’t know how long the former will live on, but as soon as I saw it I thought of the latter. Now, as we await Game 6 in Milwaukee, the Bucks are in the same position the Bulls were in 28 years ago. They bested their foe on the road and are back at home with a chance to clinch.

The hard part, it would seem, is over.

Here’s what comes next.

Why Jrue Holiday made me think of Charles Smith

Despite blowing a 32-16 1st quarter lead and then trailing by 12 in the 4th, the Suns had the ball down 1 the other night with under 25 seconds to play. And I will admit, I thought Devin Booker would make something happen.

So when Holiday got the strip, and then decided not to dribble out the clock and await a foul but instead tossed the successful oop to Giannis, who also drew that wild foul from Chris Paul, I immediately identified the collective groan the stadium-wide as one I’d heard before.

It was louder before. More painful. Deeper. But the same.

June 2, 1993. I remember it so clearly. Bulls up 1. Knicks in their half-court offense. Starks trying to maneuver around Jordan. Nothing doing. A jump shot-turned-pass to Ewing at the 3-point line. Ewing dribbling left and slowly inching inward with Stacey King on him. King trying to draw the charge. No call. Ewing flipping the ball down to Smith. Smith turning to attack the basket. Horace confronting him.

And then the organ stops.

That always kills me. The music just cuts out.

Like even the organist knew.

When I watched Horace, Michael and Scottie (twice) snuff out Smith four straight times, I thought for sure that we had sucked the life out of the Knicks. That’s how I felt when I saw Holiday’s play: He sucked the life out of the Valley.

That said, there are several key differences between the Jrue play and the Smith play. For one thing, obviously, Holiday’s was Game 5 of the Finals, while the Smith play left us one win away from a whole other series. Secondly, as boisterous as the Suns’ home crowd has been, there is nothing like Madison Square Garden. That is always true, but was particularly true then, as the Knicks entered Game 5 riding a 27-game home winning streak.

The Bulls had lost seven straight games at MSG going back to the prior year’s playoffs, when we won Game 3 and lost Game 4.

“Patrick Ewing said it best: ‘We don’t have to win at Chicago Stadium, as long as we win at home,’” Knicks coach Pat Riley said prior to Game 5. “That’s exactly right.”

The game was a battle. With nine minutes to play, we led 85-77, our largest lead of the night. Under 10 points. New York never felt out of it. We never felt like we had it in the bag. My grandmother used to say that she couldn’t relax during a Bulls game until we were up or down by 20. Game 5 against the Knicks in ‘93 was a classic Nana game. No rest of the weary.

That had been the case all season. In 1992, we broke our franchise record for wins, set the year before: 67, up from 61. In 1993, we won ten fewer games — 57 — and not only did we not secure home court for the Finals, we didn’t even have it in the East. The Knicks finished three games ahead of us with 60 wins, and we were just three games ahead of our Central Division rival Cavaliers. 1993, the critics kept telling us, would be the year that the Bulls run folds.

Nothing like that is at play with this year’s Bucks, or this year’s Suns, for that matter. But the Bucks did enter the Finals with a hill to climb, just as we did with that ECF: Giannis’s knee injury in Game 4 against the Hawks knocked him out of Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and it sure seemed as if he would miss the Finals.

Instead, he warmed his way into shape in Game 1 and has been lights out since then, averaging 35, 12 boards and 6 assists on 62% shooting over the past four games, with 1 steal, 1 block and just 1 turnover per game.

He capped off Milwaukee’s Game 5 turnaround with the oop-heard-round-the-world. You can almost hear Marv: “Final seconds: Holiday, for Antetokounmpo — and the Bucks have defeated the Suns!”

How everything went wrong for the New York Knicks — views from NBA author Chris Herring

As a Bulls fan and historian neck deep in 90s Bulls minutiae, it’s no wonder that my brain leapt straight from Holiday to Charles Smith. Jrue-to-Giannis sucked the life out of Phoenix, and I was curious to know just how badly the Smith play impacted the Knicks in Game 6, to see if I could get a read on what the Suns might be facing.

To me, it certainly felt as if New York carried the Smith play into Chicago Stadium, but of course, Game 6 was relatively close, with the Bulls prevailing 96-88. We even had our own potential distraction: The day before Game 6, news broke of Richard Esquinas’s book, and MJ had to break his media boycott to release a statement refuting Esquinas’s allegation that Jordan had lost $1.252 million to him in golf bets.

Incredibly, there was one more side story: Between Games 5 and 6, the Knicks actually announced a new contract for… you guessed it… Charles Smith!

There was a lot swirling around Game 6, to say the least, and while in my head at the time, and even now, I tied Game 6 to the Smith play in Game 5, it’s hard to get a read on that, even when diving into newspaper archives.

So I reached out to one man who could help me remember just how big a deal the Smith play was for the Knicks going into Game 6: NBA writer for Sports Illustrated and all-around good dude Chris Herring, whose book on the ‘90s Knicks — Blood On The Hardwood: The Flagrant History of the 1990s Knicks — comes out next year.

“I think Doc Rivers described it best,” Herring told me, referring to the starting point guard of the ‘93 Knicks, who published a book after the season. “He said, ‘This will sound extreme, but that loss felt a lot like a really close relative dying out of nowhere. It was that painful.’”

Like the Suns, the Knicks of course did not lose on just one play. While the Suns blew that 16-point 1st quarter lead, the Knicks blew the game at the foul line. Pat Riley had made a huge point to the press prior to the game that the Knicks were not getting the calls in Chicago and looked forward to returning to MSG and the home refs.

And indeed, they went to the line 35 times in Game 5 compared to just 23 attempts for the Bulls.

But the Knicks missed 15 of those 35 attempts, with Ewing missing six of his 14. Their team mark of .571 at the line was their lowest all season with at least 20 attempts.

“They had blown free throws down the stretch. There were all sorts of things,” Herring told me. “So it really wasn’t just Charles Smith. It was kind of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day sort of game for the Knicks at the worst moment.”

The refs were part of that day. There was no way for the Knicks to avoid frustration with those very referees who were supposed to help them; Ewing, Starks and Smith himself all stated that they thought Smith was fouled. (Pippen, for his part, thought Smith had traveled.)

I’ve always viewed Game 5 of our ‘94 series as karmic retribution for Game 5 of the ‘93 series. What the refs, basketball gods and David Stern giveth, so to do they taketh away. That’s how it goes with sports brains — you make connections. Herring made his own.

“The Smith play was kind of singular in the sense that it was repeated attempts two feet away,” he said. “It’s very rare that you see anything like that happen where someone’s on the doorstep. The play I think about is one in a different sport: the Seahawks on the goalline. Smith was like being on the goalline, and you get four attempts in a row and you don’t score.”

(Did someone say “four attempts in a row and you don’t score”? Here’s a sports brain moment for ya.)

None of this is any comfort to Knicks fans, of course, and certainly not to Smith. It doesn’t matter that the Knicks persevered and reached the Finals the next season, and it doesn’t matter that they remained competitive throughout the remainder of the decade.

What matters are the haunting images of Game 5, particularly Smith under the basket, with Marv’s words serving as cutting punctuation to the stops from Pippen, Grant and Jordan.

And then always — always — the remorse that maybe it never had to get to that point in the first place.

“If we had hit our free throws,” Ewing said after the game, “we’d be the ones who are happy.”

The lasting legacy of The Charles Smith Game — and what it could mean for the 2021 Suns

There are two other major difference between the Charles Smith play and the Jrue Holiday play. First is the level of magnitude unto itself. If the Bucks win the Finals, whether tonight or in Game 7, Saturday night’s play will go down in Bucks lore as “The Steal,” while hoops fans outside of Milwaukee will call it “The Jrue steal.”

But the play does not elevate the game to the ultimate level of identification. It is not, and won’t be, I don’t think, The Jrue Holiday Game or The Giannis Alley-Oop Game or anything else.

Mention “The Charles Smith Game” to anyone who was watching and they know exactly what you mean.

“That play still hurts the soul of every Knicks fan who is old enough to remember it,” Herring said. “There is no question: That’s a sore spot for them. I don’t know if that one will go away.”

That brings the other big difference, and it might have a good impact on the Suns. The Knicks play is defined by the victim, while the Bucks play is defined by the victors. In that respect, while the Suns face some of the challenges the Knicks faced, namely the challenge of a do-or-die road Game 6 and the realization that they’ve lost a 2-0 lead, they are not confronted by the same level of singular tragedy.

“For the last 30 years, that’s the play that defines (the Knicks franchise),” Herring said. “It’s interesting to hear the reaction around the play itself: the anger. A lot of the people I talked to around Charles Smith said that the way that John Starks talks about not being able to go anywhere without someone mentioning The Dunk to him, I’ve heard that Charles Smith has it the same way, with fans coming up to him saying he lost them a chance to win the title.”

Smith declined Herring’s interview requests for his book, but the two did speak briefly on the phone, and Herring noted that he could hear the New York City subway doors in the background. Smith is still a New Yorker. He still hears the complaints.

“Everyone knows who he is,” Herring said. “Fans have not let that go. the idea that he should have dunked. The idea that he should have held onto the ball tighter.”

I don’t think the Suns have that same element, which should be helpful tonight. The Jrue-Giannis play is defined by Jrue and Giannis, not by Devin Booker, from whom Jrue stole the ball, nor by Chris Paul, whose foul sent Giannis to the line, making a three-point, still workable game into a four-point loss.

The Charles Smith Play is The Charles Smith Game, one of those rare plays in the history of sports where every fan knows it simply by the mention of the player’s name. I don’t think we’re headed for that.

But if the Suns lose the Finals tonight, they’ll share a bond with the ‘93 Knicks: the realization that a shot at a title was right there, until it was stolen away.

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Keep an eye out for Chris Herring’s Knicks book! Updates to come…

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New “A Shot on Ehlo” newsletter coming Friday:

A look at the triangle offense from the eyes of high school basketball coach Steve Fitzgerald, whose first exposure to the offense was watching Tex Winter lead it during a Bulls practice in 1995. He later attended a triangle clinical that Tex hosted in the fall of 1998, and now teaches it to the next generation of ballplayers.

Steve Fitzgerald, with the ball, at a triangle offense clinic in September 1998, flanked by (from left), new Bulls coach Tim Floyd, Fitzgerald’s father, and the Hall of Famer Tex Winter.