The Knicks Take Pains To Maintain an Even Strain


Blockbuster trades. High hopes. Disappointing results. The story line could apply as easily to the Nets as to a certain other metro-area team that is learning the hard way that youth, athleticism, and supersized payrolls aren’t all it takes to win. Even with one of the league’s best playmakers in Stephon Marbury at the helm, New Jersey’s fourth-quarter runs keep falling short, while the Knicks can’t seem to convert their considerable offensive talent on the floor into consistent points on the board.

With two starters, Kurt Thomas and Larry Johnson, among the league’s top 10 in shooting percentage; a notoriously slow-starting shooter, Allan Houston, mustering a respectable 17 points per game (27th in the league); a point guard, Chris Childs, who is leading the NBA in 3-point percentage; and a proven scorer— Latrell Sprewell, who averaged 24.2 points per game (5th in the league) in his last full NBA season— coming off the bench; the Knicks have the tools to be an offensive threat, even when Chief Offense, Patrick Ewing, is sidelined. The mistake is to imagine that one or two in this motley crew can shoulder the burden alone. Twelve of the Knicks’ 15 wins this season have come when four or more players scored in double figures. Five Knicks have posted two-digit scoring totals in eight of those games.

Sprewell probably has a few more 21-point shows in store, like the one he put on in the first half against Boston on Saturday. But early energy spurts can just as easily fizzle into scoreless second halves, like the one he suffered two days earlier against Orlando. Sprewell’s job is to help the team win, not to carry it. His talent alone makes him a key part of the team, but his role— as Jeff Van Gundy has continued to point out— is still taking shape.

And while Sprewell seems relatively comfortable casting about for his groove, Houston is struggling when his pure-shooting persona doesn’t turn up on the court. Houston can contribute even when he isn’t in the zone, but he has to stay involved in the game. At times, Houston’s empathy seems to get the best of him, causing him to defer to Sprewell in just one possession too many in the hope that his teammate will deliver the spark. When it looks like the Knicks are in trouble, stepping up doesn’t have to mean taking over the game. It’s usually just a matter of restoring the team’s equilibrium after they throw themselves off kilter with a few errant passes.

As they proved so well in Chicago earlier this month, once the Knicks have fallen, they can’t get up. So the task is to keep them standing. Watch out for that woozy feeling, Allan.