- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Larry Johnson used to be Grandmama back in his days with Alonzo Mourning and the Hornets, back when his body was pain-free and he did not dine on anti-inflammatory medicine.

Johnson is 31 now, not the player he once was, not the 20-points-a-game player he was. Some days he wakes up feeling like he is 91, like he is Grandmama and not just a person who played one on TV.

It is easy to forget that Johnson was destined to be one of the NBA's superstars. It is easy to forget that he was a two-time all-star with the Hornets.

He was Grandmama in those days, Converse's leading pitch man, and he was Mourning's equal on the court, and together, these bookends in the low post appeared capable of doing for the Hornets what Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway did for the Magic.

But things went sour in Charlotte, N.C., the expectations left unfulfilled, and the relationship between Johnson and Mourning ended up not the best. Mourning was dispatched to the Heat after the 1995 season, and Johnson was sent to the Knicks after the following season.

Johnson accepted a subservient role with the Knicks. The Knicks had gone to the NBA Finals in 1994, and they were Patrick Ewing's team. They had been Ewing's team since Johnson's high school days in Dallas.

His scoring contributions plummeted, from 20.5 points a game in his final season with the Hornets to 12.8 points a game in his first season with the Knicks. His body started to rebel, too. The back. The knees. The feet. The game is not easy on the lower body, and Johnson's thrusts around the basket only aggravated the physical strains.

He learned to pick his spots, to try to be there when necessary. He expanded his game, going to the perimeter. He attempted only 22 3-pointers in his first season in the NBA, and now, of course, the 3-pointer is a viable weapon for him.

The Pacers know that only too well. It was Johnson's four-point play a late 3-pointer, foul and free throw that turned the Pacers-Knicks playoff series last spring.

The Pacers are reeling again the latest postseason meeting between the teams tied at 2-2 after Johnson hit five 3-pointers in Game 4 on Monday.

"If he is hitting the outside shot, it makes it tough on us," Pacers coach Larry Bird said.

The Pacers are finding they have no answers for Johnson, especially with Ewing out of the lineup and the area around the three-second lane suddenly more inviting to players with post-up abilities.

Whenever the Pacers defend Johnson with Dale Davis, Johnson inevitably drifts outside to the 3-point arc. Davis is reluctant to follow.

The perimeter is poison to most 6-foot-11 players, and Davis is no exception. Plus, he is the Pacers' principal rebounder, sometimes their only rebounder, in fact, and they cannot have him standing 20 feet from the basket, at least not when 7-foot-4 Rik Smits can play 32 minutes in Game 4 and, with no sense of shame, manage only one rebound.

Austin Croshere, who looks like an extra in the "Gladiator," is the alternative to Davis, which barely qualifies as an alternative.

Johnson can post up Croshere anyway he likes and force a double-team from the Pacers. The result is a kick-out pass and an open shot for the Knicks on the perimeter.

Johnson's growing influence on the series coincides with Ewing's departure from it. Johnson scored only three points in Game 1, Ewing's only full stint in the series.

Since Ewing's early departure in Game 2, Johnson has been a model of efficiency, posting a pair of 25-point games. He is averaging 16.5 points in the series and shooting 53.5 percent. He also is the author of the biggest shot in the series so far: a 3-pointer that put the Knicks up 80-76 with 6:22 left in Game 4.

"That one was the momentum-changer," Johnson said.

That one hurt in a profound way.

"If he misses that shot, it probably comes off long and we get a fastbreak out of it," Pacers guard Reggie Miller said.

Instead, the ex-Grandmama hit the shot and the Pacers hit the road with an acute sense of concern.

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