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For now, though, let's just concentrate on that quest to capture the pennant. Simply put, the Knicks have more mettle and scoring punch than the Heat, better mobility than the Pacers, and more experience and versatility than the 76ers. And Jeff Van Gundy's beach-stormers proved last spring that no predicament unnerves them. Nonetheless, New York's return to the NBA Finals isn't the sure thing Patrick Ewing, Spike Lee, and Mike and the Mad Dog lead us to believe it is.
Minefields lurk ahead, each capable of blowing up the team's conference title hopes:
Toronto looked downright frightened in the first quarter of Game 1, but don't expect another meltdown of that magnitude. The Raptors' blend of young studs and playoff-tested veterans beat the Knicks in three of four regular-season meetings, winning by an average of 15 points. Superstar Vince Carter averaged 33 points in those four games and isn't likely to turn in another stink bomb like Sunday's 16-point 3-for-20 shooting performance. Guard Tracy McGrady scored 25 points in Game 1 and has been solid since cracking the starting lineup in February. Throw in center Antonio Davis, who ranked 15th in the NBA in rebounding, a Charles Oakley inspired to topple the franchise that traded him, and the Raptors willingness to match the Knicks' physical play, and things can still get nerve-racking. "Toronto wanted to prove so much that they forced the issue in Game 1," says Nets TV analyst Bill Raftery. "I expect them to get more into their comfort zone."
The Knicks enjoy home-court advantage, but Carter is an offensive terror who has the ability to win a deciding fifth game at the Garden all by himself. And in the first round, the Raptors need only three wins to pull off the upset.
How effective will Ewing be if forced to play gamesmost likely against the bruising Heaton back-to-back days in the second round? Most important, could the Knicks survive the loss of Allan Houston or Latrell Sprewell for even a game or two?
Houston was the team's best player during last season's playoff run, and the Knicks can't win unless he or Sprewell is the one firing away at crunch time. The Knicks hope Houston's 21 points in Game 1 is a sign that the postseason has awakened him. But it might not be easy to simply flip the switch. Houston, whose defense has also been inconsistent, has been showing signs of fatigue. He went from last season's long playoff run to playing for Team USA in the Tournament of the Americas during the summer to jumping right back into another demanding regular season. Van Gundy thinks Houston's periodic droughts are the result of him not driving to the basket enough, another sign of tired legs.
"A big problem for Houston is that teams are concentrating their defense on him because of the success he had last year," says CNN/SI analyst Kevin Loughery. "Also, Ewing is setting up outside and not playing in the post as much as he has in the past. If Patrick plays down low more, he'll have to be double-teamed, and that will open up more shots for Houston."
Which brings us to . . .