Knicks Take the Hard Road— But to Where?

If Jeff Van Gundy is going to keep his job, his Knicks are going to have to start avoiding this familiar scene, which has become an every-other-game occurrence.

It starts with Latrell Sprewell facing a thicket of microphones that have converged on his locker. Other teammates take momentary refuge in the showers. Sprewell displays the patience and candor that have become characteristic of his postgame persona as a Knick, but also the subdued tone of a losing player.

"The game was ours," he offers, "We have a desire to win, we're just not executing." When pressed to explain why a team with the Knicks' talent and experience can't find a way to win, Sprewell is at a loss. "I can't put my finger on it. If I had the answers, we wouldn't have lost the game."

Sprewell could have been describing any of seven or so contests this year, but this one was last week's last-second, one-point loss to Milwaukee on the Garden floor. It was a disturbingly apt assessment of a team that also lost the desire part three days later in Chicago. After 21 games, the Knicks are still clinging to a winning record, and they will probably make the playoffs. But it has become painfully obvious that this team still hasn't found the answers.

An off-season makeover designed to add athleticism to the team's trademark defense and consistency to its unpredictable offense has solved few problems. Try as they might, the new-look Knicks remain firmly entrenched in the team's decade-old Sisyphean struggle against liabilities that are as glaring as they are intangible. Deliverance won't come this season in the form of a slashing, cornrowed superhero. Nor will it come when Patrick Ewing's patented fallaway finally falls at the buzzer. It is time for the Knicks to forgo their visions of once and future grandeur, to their mediocrity in the here and now.

The players should hear Van Gundy's perpetual "mental toughness" mantra as a call to face down their demons, to play through their mistakes instead of playing into them. If it's blue-collar they want to be, the Knicks should quit looking for Charles Oakley and start acting like him.

Although the team's personnel moves— and some cues from Knick management— have raised expectations for the Knicks this season, they are no more than a work in progress who have yet to prove the wisdom of adding an explosive offensive player (Sprewell) into a team that thrives on defense. Coach Jeff Van Gundy recently remarked that Sprewell will likely go through "a long process of adjustment before he feels comfortable" with his new team. "It's a fine line between playing within the Knicks' philosophy without it reducing aggressiveness. And he's going to be searching for that," Van Gundy said.

While Sprewell learns to walk that fine line, Allan Houston settles into his shooting groove, and Ewing nurses his ailing tendons, the Knicks would do well to look for their answers in unlikely places. Like, say, the ever-improving offense and consistently tough defense of Kurt Thomas. It may not look pretty, but Thomas has been knocking down midrange jumpers with increasing frequency lately.

Knick management probably deserves little of the credit, but their inaction during last week's trading frenzy was one of the team's better moves of late. The last thing that this team needs is more superstar hype to lull them into a false sense of security. Leave the fairy-tale endings and wishes upon stars to the golden boys across the Hudson. The Knicks, in true form, will travel the hard road to success.

 
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