NEW YORK -- In a series known more for brutality than beauty, it was only fitting that an ex-football player sealed the victory.
Charlie Ward scored a career playoff-high 20 points, including New York's final nine, to lead the Knicks past the Heat 91-83 on Sunday, evening their Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece.
The 1993 Heisman Trophy winner was the only Knicks player to score in the final 4-1/2 minutes, converting two layups, a jumper and a 3-pointer.
"I felt like I should have my own team. ... like a go-to guy," Ward said. "I've been in that position before when you are the man and everybody is looking for you to make plays, and you make those plays."
Ward's final shot with 36.1 seconds left clinched the victory, prompting him to pump his fist and spurring the crowd to break into a chant of "Char-lie," "Char-lie." Ward had never heard such a tribute from the Madison Square Garden crowd during his six-year career.
"That was just nice for Charlie to get the accolades he got," Knicks forward Marcus Camby said.
Ward, playing his 53rd career playoff game, surpassed his previous postseason best of 15 points against Indiana in 1998.
He also had seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, and it was just the third time all season he led the team in scoring.
Many of Ward's teammates were thrilled by his breakout game, especially since they know what he is capable of -- even though he doesn't show it every game.
Ward's inconsistency -- he is more likely to score zero points than 20 -- has provided fodder for the kind of endless criticism that has dogged him since he left Florida State and joined the Knicks in 1994.
"The challenge that came forth with football and people saying he's a football player and not a basketball player -- it would drive anybody when someone says you can't do this or you're not that," teammate Chris Childs said.
That label stuck with Ward during his early years in town when he was often called the best quarterback in New York in the years when the NFL Jets and Giants were struggling.
"You never know what energizes a person," Ward said. "The spirit that you have within, you keep moving forward. There have been a lot of times I've been talked about -- can't do this, can't do that -- all those things are coming to rest for one day."
Allan Houston added 17 points, Latrell Sprewell had 16, Larry Johnson 13 and Patrick Ewing 12 for the Knicks, who led for most of the game and the entire fourth quarter.
Alonzo Mourning led Miami with 27 but missed four foul shots in the final 5´ minutes. The Heat were also hurt by 19 turnovers.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Miami, and Game 6 will be Friday night at New York. Game 7, if necessary, is next Sunday at Miami.
"We've got home court back, but that's the only good thing we come out of here with," Mourning said. "Somewhere along the line we have to establish a level of consistency or else we're going to let this thing slip away. We can't hand them any gifts, and today was a gift."
Sunday's game was the highest-scoring of a series that has been dominated by defense and marked by long stretches of offensive ineptitude.
Miami grabbed 27 rebounds in the first half to New York's 13, but the Knicks' rebounding woes disappeared over the final 24 minutes as they grabbed 10 offensive boards.
Miami was still hanging around early in the fourth quarter, trailing by five, when Kurt Thomas outworked Otis Thorpe for an offensive rebound that turned into a 3-pointer from the corner by Houston for a 76-68 lead.
Mourning returned from the bench with 7:34 left but immediately got beaten on the boards as Camby tipped in a missed shot to restore an eight-point lead.
Miami grabbed an offensive rebound on its next possession, and Mourning suddenly found himself matched against Childs in the low post. But despite the mismatch, the Heat didn't deliver the ball to Mourning and settled for a long jumper that missed.
It was a nine-point game with 4:04 left after Ward hit a layup, but he failed to convert the three-point play to begin a stretch of three straight missed free throws by the Knicks that allowed the Heat one more chance to come back.
They may have done so, too, if Mourning hadn't missed one of two from the line with 3:39 left and two more foul shots with 2:28 left.
Ward made it a seven-point game on a driving layup around Anthony Carter with 1:51 left, then hit a jumper with 1:09 left and a 3-pointer with 36 seconds remaining to make it 91-81-- the biggest lead by either team since Game 2.
"I thought it was garbage points at the end," Carter said of Ward. "It wasn't the key to the victory. If it was his career-high, congratulations." [bf]Notes:[nf] Mashburn kicked the press table on his way to the locker room at halftime, sending the table into the arm of New York Times reporter Selena Roberts, whose shoulder popped out of its socket. She returned for the second half.