The Indiana Pacers were fortunate their center came out of a slump just when the New York Knicks got back at full strength.

Rik Smits scored 22 points as the Pacers beat the Knicks 85-77 Thursday night for a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.Knicks center Patrick Ewing had only 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting in his first game back in 41/2 months following surgery on a fractured right wrist.

"He was a little rusty, but that's to be expected," Smits said of Ewing. "His footwork is still good. It's just getting time on the floor. The longer the series lasts, the better he'll get, obviously."

With a 2-0 lead, the Pacers want to finish off the Knicks as soon as they can. Games 3 and 4 are in New York on Saturday and Sunday.

"They're an excellent basketball team, and they're going home, so it's definitely going to get tougher," Pacers guard Mark Jackson said. "And Patrick is going to get a rhythm sooner or later. I think our goal and our objective is to try to put this thing away before he finds that rhythm, whenever that may be.

"Obviously, they're a tougher team with a Patrick Ewing that's playing like Patrick Ewing," Jackson said.

The same can be said about Larry Johnson, who had 15 points after returning from a two-game suspension for fighting with Miami's Alonzo Mourning in the first round.

"I had a little rust myself," Johnson said. "But Game 3 and Game 4 are both big for us. With Patrick back, we're definitely improved. We'll have to make adjustments, but that's what playing team ball is all about."

Smits, who weathered a 3-for-19 shooting performance in Game 1 on Tuesday, never stopped shooting. All he had to do was look to the Pacers bench and his coach, Larry Bird, one of the NBA's classic shooters.

"That's what Larry always says, `Keep shooting,' and he was one of the better shooters there was," said Smits, who hit seven of his final 11 shots .

"In the past, maybe, under coach (Larry) Brown, I would have quit shooting and maybe done other things, but with Larry, if you quit shooting, you're coming off the floor, and I don't want to do that," Smits said. "I try to do my best job and try to do other things too. At least I came out with some decent shots."

That's what Ewing's looking for, too, for the rest of the series.

"This one game definitely helped me. It will get me ready for the next one. My goal is to help the Knicks win a championship," Ewing said. "I thought I would play better, but I believe in myself and I have high expectations. It will be a different story in New York."

That's what the Pacers are expecting from Ewing, too.

"No matter how many times you practice, your wind isn't always going to be basketball timing, your timing isn't always going to be basketball timing. But he's an All-Star. He'll play well," Pacers forward Antonio Davis said.

"The biggest thing is as a team we know what we can do. It's all about going out there and playing a certain way. Once we do that, we're pretty hard to beat."