Second String Saviors?


The New Look Knicks— that fancy, fleet-footed team that seemed so destined for greatness back in early February— have finally arrived. It took a while— a whole season, in fact— but they’re here, coming off the bench for the most part, and driving and dunking their way into New Yorkers’ hearts. Finally, deliverance. No more of the moody, merry-go-round lineups of the past decade, whose faces and fortunes seemed to change with every revolution and whose inconsistency has burned countless ulcers into the stomachs of the Garden faithful. At last the Knicks have just the right mix of grit and gusto, tenacity and turbo power, and all those years of angst seem worth the wait

But looks can be deceiving.

Enjoy the good times while they’re rolling, Knicks fans, because perpetual worrywart Jeff Van Gundy might just have a point with his humbling reminders that his team has reached this improbable pinnacle thanks in no small part to the friendly bounce of a ball (Allan Houston’s off-balance runner that clinched the Miami series). The Knicks’ transformation over the last month, for all of its drama and excitement, has yet to set its feet on solid ground. On closer examination, the fluttery energy of the Knicks’ second unit that all but carried this team through the Atlanta series makes for a shaky foundation on which to build a trip to the NBA Finals.

As the Knicks pile up postseason victories, Van Gundy has not been shy about pointing out his team’s enduring weaknesses. “Our biggest problem tonight was rebounding the ball,” he said Sunday after the Knicks’ spry second team kicked into high gear, leaving the Hawks— and an aching, bench-bound Patrick Ewing— choking on their dust. “Our guys started to leak out and think run before rebound. That don’t work for us. We are a small team, particularly when Patrick is hobbling like he is; we don’t have the luxury to leak people out.”

Guess what? Those lightning-fast breaks, tomahawk jams, and thundering Chris Dudley putbacks that have been whipping the Garden into a frenzy are all too often the result of a porous defense— New York’s defense. The Knicks consistently outscored the Hawks on the break because Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, and even Larry Johnson, usually a vigilant defender, turned their backs to the basket and headed up court as soon as an Atlanta shooter let go of the ball. If the shot dropped— or the outnumbered Knicks managed to rein in the rebound— it made for a hell of a highlight reel at the other end of the floor. But sometimes— in the Hawks’ case, about 70 percent of the time— those shots didn’t fall. Or the dutiful Knick who stayed behind couldn’t manage to grab the board— the Hawks gathered 38 offensive rebounds in games 2 and 3. And while one member or another of the giddy second unit was wandering around the Knicks’ basket looking for an alley-oop pass, the Hawks’ Steve Smith was putting back his own rebound.

Those gambles paid off for the Knicks against an injury-plagued Hawks team that was missing two of its top five scorers— Alan Henderson and LaPhonso Ellis— for the entire series. But the Knicks need to find a way to feed their hungry scorers— whose ranks seem to be growing with each game (Dudley led all Knicks’ scorers in the second half of Game 3 with 10 points!)— while staying true to their tried-and-tested defensive legacy.

That’ll be especially true against Indiana. The Pacers are a big and bruising bunch. Restless Knick defenders with one eye on their man and the other on a fast-break opportunity will quickly understand the price of their lapse the first time one of the Pacers’ hulking Davis Boys (Dale and Antonio; no relation) snatches an offensive board away from the outnumbered Knicks frontcourt.

There is no doubt that the flagging Knicks team of a month ago sorely needed the energy that Camby, Sprewell, Dudley, and backup point guard Chris Childs have begun to deliver consistently off the bench. And it’s tempting to heave a sigh of relief that the Knicks have finally quit bucking the run-and-gun style that is so much more aesthetically pleasing than their typical plodding ways. They’ve even managed to work the pious Dudley, a regular at Charlie Ward’s Bible study sessions and not one known for showboating,
into the act. To the casual observer, a glimpse of Camby dunking over Dikembe Mutombo from the foul line means these guys are finally getting it done.

“I don’t know about all that,” Childs chuckles when asked whether the Knicks are finally earning their league-high $68.5 million payroll with a running game. “We enjoy playing with one another, we’re communicating better on the court, on the bench— trying to figure out ways to get somebody open.”

Childs is the best bet for keeping the unique chemistry of the Knicks bench from exploding out of control. Despite his fondness for running the floor, and an occassional emotional outburst, Childs adds the down-to-earth flavor that will keep this crew from self-
destructing. From Childs’s perspective, the second unit is as much about unselfishness as it is about spectacular plays— it’s about knowing your roles. He breaks down the formula this way: “In that group, we have one go-to guy and he’s gonna score. The rest of us, we don’t care. Marcus is gonna dunk and block shots, he’s happy. Dudley loves to bang. I’m a point guard. I love to play defense. I’d rather give it up. I like to shoot the three, whatever. We just go out there and play.”

Therein lies the hope for a Knicks team that, despite its recent successes, is still in the process of finding itself. The crowds go wild and the cameras roll when the bench players start flying high above the rim, but things really get going when the team plays together.

To that end, Childs is troubled by recent reports of intrateam social divisions. “I don’t know why the clique thing was brought up,” Childs says of a supposed divide between the devoutly religious players like Ward, Houston, and Dudley and other Knicks. “Some guys go to Bible study, some guys don’t,” Childs says. “That has nothing to do with cliques. Dud’ll go to the mall with me. Or Spree. It doesn’t matter.”

More than likely, the Knicks will need a little divine guidance to go along with their new uptempo style to conquer the Pacers. Their second unit can put quick points on the board, sure, but they’ll also need to stop Indiana from getting easy buckets and second chances. If they remember to stay home on D before springing down the floor, a trip to the Finals may be the offing. The Knicks might not all be up on their scripture, but they are pretty much on the same page, and therefore, they have a prayer.

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