Hard Road to Glory

The Minefields That Lurk Between the Knicks and a Conference Title

The last time the Knicks won two straight Eastern Conference titles, John Lindsay was mayor, WABC was a top-40 station, and you could quench your postgame thirst with a Nedick's orange drink. Back then, the reward for a conference crown was a meeting with Wilt's Lakers. This year, it will likely be a shot at Shaq's Lakers, who'd be favored to pound the Knicks through the garden floor and onto an LIRR platform in Penn Station.

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:

The wrong "sparring partner": On Sunday, the Knicks kicked off the postseason by blowing a 19-point lead and hanging on for a 92-88 win over the Toronto Raptors in the first-round playoff matchup Van Gundy feared the most.

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.

Injuries: Right now, the Knicks are probably the healthiest they've been all season. (For fear of sustaining a fluke hand sprain, they won't knock on wood as you remind them of that.) But can Ewing's sore knees, achy wrist, and frail Achilles tendon; Larry Johnson's chronically bad back; and Camby's tender, swollen, arthroscopically repaired right knee endure if New York is extended the distance in a couple of series?

How effective will Ewing be if forced to play games—most likely against the bruising Heat—on 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's funks: The sharpshooting guard has vanished too often during the second half of the season. Houston was averaging 20.9 points going into the All-Star Game, but was held under 20 points in 21 games following the break. Worse than Houston not making the shots was his not getting them. In an embarrassing April 2 loss to the Lakers, he took just four shots in the second half.

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 . . .

Ewing's selfishness: In the final weeks of the regular season, as some of the headlines trumpeted his spirited play and pronounced him the floor leader once again, Ewing stopped deferring to Houston and Sprewell and tried to be The Man. Against the weaker teams, it worked. Against the elite, it didn't. Ewing missed his last four shots, including an ill-advised fadeaway in the final seconds, in a four-point loss in Indiana on March 21. During the fiasco in L.A., he often bypassed open teammates while brazenly hoisting 17 shots. Against Orlando five days later, he took 20 shots.

If Ewing is determined to carry the team on his back to assuage his ego or prove his longtime critics wrong, the Knicks are in trouble. As Raftery says, "Patrick's days of being the go-to guy are long over. He has to realize that."

Exploding tempers: When Chris Childs made like Oscar De La Hoya instead of Oscar Robertson and fired a right-left combination to Kobe Bryant's beard in L.A., one couldn't help but flash back to those other times during the Van Gundy Era when a Knick bearing a shoulder chip gave new meaning to the term swing man. Remember Charlie Ward versus P.J. Brown and the resulting free-for-all? How about L.J. versus Alonzo Mourning?

Childs's willingness to get tossed out of an important, nationally televised game and incur an automatic suspension raises questions about some Knicks' judgment and discipline even now, three years after the Ward-Brown fracas cost them a trip to the conference finals. There will be plenty of opportunities for mayhem during the Toronto series when bodies are banging, elbows are flying, and Childs and fellow hothead Kurt Thomas are hearing trash talk. What happens when Oakley tries to send a message that the Raptors won't be bullied? Or the Knicks get overzealous in their attempts to put Carter on the floor a few more times to rattle him?

The Knicks must maintain their composure and consider the consequences of another temper tantrum, especially if they meet the hated Heat in the second round. And that's no small feat for a team for which valor has too often been the better part of discretion.

How the Knicks negotiate that minefield and the others will be the difference between another shot at a ring and a summer of second-guessing. Or as Clyde Frazier might put it, we're talking about the difference between Ewing stewing, Childs riled, and Latrell catching hell, and the Knicks dishing, swishing, and sending the Pacers golfing and fishing.

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