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Some called it divine intervention. Others preferred to leave the Lord out of it. Whatever you chalked it up to, the Knicks were looking at daylight in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in five years. For a team used to playing with its back against the wall and fans used to sitting at the edge of their seats, having room to exhale was a strange sensation.
But that wasn't the only time-honored New York tradition these Knicks have defied in the last few weeks. In a city whose playgrounds are renowned for producing some of the best point guards in the game, the Knickerbockers have come within spitting distance of the NBA Finals without so much as a crossover dribble. For all of the kvetching this season over the Knicks' less-than-spectacular one-guards, they have managed to keep this team standing while some of the league's best playmakers can only watch from the sidelines.
"Stephon Marbury was talking all that junk [about Knicks guards Charlie Ward and Chris Childs], but where is he now? He's sitting at home," said Spike Lee, shouting over the halftime Garden din last Saturday night. Lee was referring to Marbury's confident prediction after his New Jersey Nets were blown out by the Knicks in April that the Knicks had no chance of winning a championship as long as Childs and Ward were guiding the team on the floor. Right now, that prophecy seems as sturdy as the brittle backboards on the Brooklyn playgrounds where the young Marbury cut his teeth as a flash- and-dash playmaker.
Perhaps by design, but more likely by happy accident, the Knicks have turned such hackneyed criticism on its head, cobbling together an offense-by-committee whose unpredictability has been its greatest weapon. Coach Jeff Van Gundy, a devout disciple of the post-up offensive system, likes to talk about his Knicks as a "sneaky" running team. That may be as close as this master of minutiae will come to endorsing an unplanned offense, but it's an apt description of the strengths his two point guards bring to the game.
Opponents can easily be lulled into a false sense of security when they are matched up against the much-maligned Ward. While Latrell Sprewell will scoop up a steal and thunder downcourt for a dunk, the diminuitive Ward, only 6-1, is more apt to disrupt a play with a prod or a poke. The results aren't always as spectacular, but Ward's subtler style is less of a defensive gamble, which is sure to put the conservative Van Gundy's mind at ease.
And for all of the talk about Childs as the helmsman of the Knicks new running game, he keeps his free-spirited teammates grounded with a long but firm tether. And while the giddy Sprewell and Camby are more fond of blocks and steals, Childs sets the tone with his patient and tenacious defense. Childs, unlike Ward, has also emerged as a visible team leader this season. He was the one who raced up to Johnson after he hit the "miracle" trey in Game 3 to remind him that he had a free-throw to sink. After the victory, Childs was mature and brutally honest about his team's performance: "We played an ugly game, we were lucky tonight."
So, while Childs doesn't pass out of the post with the uncanny precision that Mark Jackson honed on the streets of Brooklyn and Ward's drives to the hoop aren't likely to inspire the And 1 brand to name a line of sneakers after him, they've more than gotten the job done during the playoffs. And they've managed to shut down a couple of the better-known floor generals along the way. Like many of the point guards who made their name in this city, these two and this New York team have found their true strength in the unrelenting adversity of their circumstances.
"Growing up in New York City, you're playing against the best players in the world," Jackson told the Voicebefore Game 3 of the Knicks-Pacers series. "Going head-to-head against them every single day, you're picking up things, learning, getting better. I wasn't fast enough to blow by people, so I had to use my brain and use my strength." With a down-and-out center and point guards with limited moves, the Knicks, like the young Jackson, don't have the conventional offensive weapons, so they have been forced to get creative. The result: a scrambling New York offense that is giving Jackson and the Pacers fits.
That New York is the main producer of point guards (in much the same way as San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic is known as the "cradle of shortstops") is no surprise. Besides the abundance of quality competition, the city's geography is particularly well-suited for sculpting such playmakers. The cramped, confined playgrounds on which young ballplayers develop their games are good for honing spectacular moves. You need to be a pretty damn good ballhandler to make it through the tight traffic on New York's various caged- in courts.
And so from Bob Cousy to Tiny Archibald to Kenny Anderson to Marbury, New York has sent the world's best point guards out into the world. But none have returned to play in the Mecca of basketball. Sure, Jackson and Rod Strikland played for the Knicks. But neither were the pure floor leaders they are now when they called the Garden their home.
The only time the Knicks had a top-flight backcourt was the only time they won a championship. The teams of Clyde Frazier and, later, Pearl Monroe took the Knicks' only two titles in the early '70s. And the guard talent was imported from Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively.
Since those two greats left with their uniform numbers raised to the rafters, Knicks management has been looking for an equivalent replacement. This past past decade in particular, the front office has endured criticism for it's neglect of the point guard position. A parade of premier floor leaders including Derek Harper and Doc Rivers in addition to Jackson and Strikland have donned Knick uniforms, but none have found a comfortable home in the Garden. And despite its penchant for grandstand moves on the trading block, Knick management somehow let a chance at Marbury slip through its fingers this season.
While he has never truly been replaced, Frazier remains a part of the extended Knick family. And in his work as a TV and radio commentator, Clyde for all his pretty moves during his playing days has been quick to criticize the current trend of specialized guards. In the old days, Frazier says, guards were guards. Everybody knew how to pass, shoot, and dribble. With the unprecedented amount of grooming and preening that goes into the making of NBA stars today, guards play a very specific role. Point guards handle the ball and pass, while two-guards shoot, shoot, shoot. But the Knick guards, while not as skilled as those who brought home the championships, have shown promise outside of their proscribed roles. Childs, for instance, has hit a couple of crucial threes in the waning moments of Games 1 and 3. Meanwhile, Allen Houston's passing has improved with each playoff game. He racked up an impressive five assists in Game 3 three more than Ward.
Archibald, a Bronx native, was arguably one of the best point guards in NBA history. He blazed a trail on New York's blacktops for today's ball handlers. But the similarities with the modern player apparently end there. "I guess I was blessed growing up in this city because it was a learning process for me," Archibald told reporters earlier this year at an NBA forum. "I wasn't like some of the guys who grew up in the city . . . like the Kennys [Anderson, currently with the Boston Celtics], the Rods [Strickland, with the Washington Wizards]. I didn't go to a major school."
Today's players are without question more talented, Archibald says, but many lack the humility that could make them better players. "When I went to Texas Western (now UTEP), was I Nate Archibald 'the man?' No, I was a member of the Texas Western team.A lot of kids think it's all about them. You cannot win the game by yourself."
At the pinnacle of this fairy-tale season, the Knicks backcourt seems to have achieved an impossible synthesis of the unselfishness and humility that informed Tiny's game, the varied game of Clyde, and the bravado that drives Marbury through the lane.