Publish date:

Rough...but Ready?

The hardscrabble New York Knicks are still Patrick Ewing's team, which may—or may not—allow them to earn the NBA title

The New York Knicks, led by one of the NBA's most outstanding centers, are the only true title threat to the Chicago Bulls this season.

The Knicks might be able to contend for the championship if they would stop throwing the ball to that stiff-kneed, one-dimensional seven-footer in the middle.

The Knicks play the toughest defense in the NBA, and defense wins titles these days.

The Knicks don't have two guys who can throw the ball into the Hudson River, let alone score in the clutch against a real team. They'll be lucky to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

The Knicks are an intelligent bunch of players who know how to win.

The Knicks are a collection of thugs whose team symbol should be a tire iron.

The Knicks' president, Dave Checketts, and their coach, Pat Riley, did an outstanding job of turning a solid roster into a championship roster.

The Knicks' brass gutted a promising team and acquired a bunch of old stiffs.

Yes, the Knicks are up, they're down, they're all around the town. They've been scrutinized more than Amy Fisher, and the season, like Amy, is still young. They're good enough to beat the Bulls by 37 points (112-75) at Madison Square Garden but bad enough to lose to the mediocre Los Angeles Clippers, also at the Garden. They've got the NBA's best defense, holding foes to 93.3 points a game through last week, and one of the league's worst offenses (98.4 points, 26th among the 27 NBA teams). They collect flagrant fouls like dogs collect fleas—forwards Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, both aptly named, had seven flagrant fouls between them—and some observers see the Knicks as calculating offenders who use intimidation as a psychological ploy. Truth be told, with New York's record at 24-14 at week's end, no one is quite sure what the Knicks are—including the Knicks.

"I look at us and see a puzzle," says veteran point guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers, one of seven new faces on the 1992-93 roster. "I picture a little kid sitting on the floor with all these pieces, and he has to figure out where they go. All the pieces are there, though. And that's what sets us apart from a lot of others."

Indeed, as often as they have been The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, the Knicks still belong on the list of teams that have a real shot at the title. They have a championship fire, a championship physicality, a championship depth, a championship chemistry and, need it be said, a championship coach.

The case against New York, though, is just as compelling. The Knicks lack a championship point guard, a championship go-to guy, a championship offense. True, their suffocating D keeps them in games, but their sputtering O often keeps them from winning close encounters: Five of New York's last six losses have been by three or fewer points. It is an NBA axiom that champions must have at least two players who merit being double-teamed. The Knicks have one, Patrick Ewing, and his shooting percentage this season (.487) is his lowest since he was a rookie, in 1985-86.

Oddly, it has been suggested that the Knicks will improve only when Riley stops running the offense through Ewing, who would seem to be New York's one constant. The Knicks remade themselves in the off-season to increase their firepower, adding proven scorers Rolando Blackman from the Dallas Mavericks and Charles Smith from the Clippers. So far these newcomers have not been allowed to blossom because they must defer to Ewing on practically every possession. Two particular outings suggest that the too-much-Ewing theory has some validity: When Ewing was slowed by the flu against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 14, both Smith (23 points) and Blackman (17) excelled in a 106-89 victory; and on Jan. 10, in a game the Knicks ultimately lost 100-97 to the Boston Celtics, the Knicks erased a 23-point deficit with Ewing on the bench.

"There's something to it," Rivers says of the too-much-Ewing theory. "When things break down, naturally, we go to the guy who's been around. It's going to take time to work everyone in."

Whether or not the New York offense continues to go through, around or over Ewing, it has already been a tough season for him. His chronically sore knees are bothering him, and he has come out on the south end of a thousand comparisons to Orlando's rookie phenom, Shaquille O'Neal. Publicly Ewing remains the stoic, I-just-play-and-don't-think-about-that-other-crap foot soldier. But privately O'Neal's stunning popularity has irked Ewing. Before a recent game he told a teammate in the locker room, "Do you believe he's leading me in the All-Star voting?" Believe it: At week's end O'Neal had 267,056 votes to Ewing's 167,319.

Certainly O'Neal, a 7'1", 300-pound package of quickness, determination and maturity beyond his years, is something the NBA has not seen in a long, long time. But just because O'Neal is terrific, doesn't mean that Ewing is suddenly a stiff.

"This much I know," says Rivers. "Without Patrick Ewing we stand no chance of going anywhere."

The Knicks have done an excellent job of keeping a lid on any tension that may have arisen out of the Ewing dilemma, if it can be called that. Ewing is fully aware, though, that his value to the Knicks has become Topic A among New York fans. After he took 29 shots in last Friday night's 109-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, he held the stat sheet aloft in the locker room and shouted to teammate John Starks, "Hey, John, man, talk about me! You took 29, too." Ewing said it with a smile, but he said it.

There is no doubt that both Blackman, who averaged 19.2 points per game in his 11-year career before coming to the Knicks. and Smith (18.4 in four seasons) could use a little of Starks's gung-ho mentality, which produced an average of 24.9 points in the Knicks' last eight games through Sunday. But the bloated expectations of New York fans notwithstanding, it is not that surprising that both players are struggling. Blackman has always been a rhythm shooter, a player who comes off picks with textbook footwork and precision. In the Knicks' inside-oriented offense, he simply doesn't get those screens. And it's not as if Smith is suddenly searching for an offensive identity—that was his shortcoming with the Clippers, too. Should he use his finesse and shooting skills to lure big defenders away from the basket? Or should he use his 6'10" height to post up smaller defenders? The consensus is that Smith too often settles for the outside jumper instead of powering inside, and perhaps that aspect of his game will never change.

Ultimately the most crucial challenge to the Knicks' championship hopes isn't the blending in of Blackman and Smith, but the resolving of the point-guard muddle. It's one thing when your starting point guard and shooting guard are largely interchangeable as, say, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were during the Detroit Pistons' glory days, but quite another when you can't decide between one floor leader (Greg Anthony) or another (Rivers). Riley has committed to Anthony for the time being but worries privately, and with good reason, that Anthony, a second-year player, is too inexperienced and erratic to guide New York to the title. "Plus," says Rivers, "Greg's a Republican. That's what I can't understand." Rivers is kidding, of course, and has accepted his backup role like a good soldier. We'll see if such congeniality continues.

But discussing offense when the subject is the Knicks is like talking about choreography when the subject is Madonna. New York's essence is the bulge of Oakley's biceps, the nasty look on Mason's face, the cocky gleam in Starks's eye. The Knicks are trying to do what perhaps no other team has ever done—win a championship almost solely with defense and intimidation. The Pistons? Yes, they were tough defenders and intimidators, but they also had three guards (Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson) who could score consistently, two go-to post-up guys underneath (Mark Aquirre and James Edwards) and a center (Bill Laimbeer) who could bury shots from three-point range. Sure, the Knicks want to score more, but they know their success ultimately hinges on their ability to reduce any game to a half-court test of survival.

Their opponents know it, too, which is precisely why Bull coach Phil Jackson has begun a war of words that is about as subtle as an Oakley elbow. Jackson takes every opportunity to discuss the Knicks' physicality, hoping that his barbs will somehow douse their fire. "This is a team that wants to decapitate us and quarter us," Jackson said before Chicago carved up New York like a Christmas goose 89-77 on Dec. 25. At the same time Jackson likes to plant with his team the seed that the Knicks are not worth worrying about. "I think they're too old," Jackson said after the Christmas win. "They've got Patrick Ewing, who's what, 30? And Rolando Blackman, who's 33 or whatever. They're players with a lot of habits, an accumulation of personal failure."

Those comments get the steam rising from Riley's mousse. "Jackson has crossed the line," Riley says. "He has insulted our team, insulted our veteran players. We've got to realize, though, that the more Jackson talks, the less it has to do with what goes on on the court.

"I hope we're there to play Chicago [in the playoffs], I really do. And we could be. If I've learned one thing about this game, it's that the regular season is a process you have to get through to find your true identity in the playoffs. As long as you endure the process without coming apart, without all the scrutiny paralyzing you or the expectations reducing you, you'll be fine. And I think we're going to be fine.

"When I see this team, I see a big tightly wrapped box," says Riley, dipping into his rich cache of metaphors. "It's Christmas morning, and the box is under the tree. You don't know what's in it yet, but you can't wait to open it up. That's the New York Knicks right now."



With the erratic Anthony (opposite) at the helm, the up-and-down Knicks and Ewing swing from high fives to headaches.



Oakley's antics have helped to keep the league's coffers full.