As the curtain descends on this Cinderella Knicks season, everybody is looking for an angle. From the immigrant cab drivers idling outside Madison Square Garden to the neighborhood bar in Spike Lee’s old Brooklyn stomping grounds, the comeback scenarios abound. This team just has to find one more way to win. But for all of the hope fueled by off-balance runners and desperation three-pointers, the talk at the Garden last Sunday, as Spurs practice wound down, was of altered shots and closed-down lanes. The
court, marked with the logos of the New York Liberty for a late-Sunday WNBA game, was an apt reminder that time was closing in on the Knicks’ chances at one more improbable turnaround.
For better or worse, these ragtag Knicks and their formidable opponents from the Alamo have weighed in with the final word on a watershed season that delivered NBA basketball from the brink of self-destruction. At first glance, these two teams couldn’t appear more different: the young guns riding bareback and waving lassos versus the clean-cut cavalry marching to victory in perfect formation. The Spurs’ long-awaited bid for a championship was built on the block: the virtually unassailable post moves of second-year, seven-foot phenom Tim Duncan, buttressed by the towering David Robinson’s smooth, shrewd movement off the ball. Their presence in the paint draws defenders like flies to honey, opening up the perimeter for the sweet-shooting Sean Elliott or the dagger-launching Jaren Jackson. By contrast, the Knicks rode anything but a game plan to Eastern Conference dominance. A Marcus Camby tip-in here, a Latrell Sprewell steal there, a Patrick Ewing box-out for a rebound way back there. (Need we mention, yet again, the Allan Houston off-balance floater and the Larry Johnson four-point play?) Running on the adrenaline of empty, with no place to go but up, this Knicks team has spent the postseason giving new meaning to the phrase “finding a way to win.” With a skeletal squad that was still casting about for a solid identity, Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy— ever the post-up traditionalist— grudgingly gave way to a running game that was once the sole province of flashy Western Conference teams.
Was this oddball matchup an aberration borne of a stunted season? Or is it a harbinger of things to come in a league casting about for new direction on a landscape where the soaring silhouette of Michael Jordan looms no more? Will a Spurs victory signal a return to the traditional discipline of a post-up offense? Or will an impossible Knicks’ comeback raise divine glory, karma, and Zen-babble to new heights of importance on the basketball court— with all of the power to affect “the little things” that was once attributed to simple effort and concentration?
There was little consensus on these questions among the luminaries of basketball commentary who milled about the Garden sidelines last Sunday. ESPN’s David Aldridge wasn’t anxious to draw sweeping conclusions about the game from the outcome of this series. “This is not a referendum on one style as opposed to another,” Aldridge said. “When people win, that’s the vogue. Everybody’s gonna try to get two seven-footers together now.” But the Duncan-Robinson dominance on the blocks is no more the magic bullet of the millennium than Tex Winter’s triangle offense. If this Knicks run to the Finals has proved anything, it’s that some principles of the game never falter. The pendulum will always be swinging, passing through each team’s unique plane of opportunity where every shift of the angle is another chance for the players to dig in their heels and strike a balance.
The Knicks, for a time, found that equilibrium in the curious combination of Sprewell’s roaring will to find the basket, tempered by Houston’s soft outside touch and Camby’s tip-and-tap dance in the paint. But according to Aldridge, that winning formula could change on a dime. “If you have great post-up players, you post up,” he said. “The Knicks post up Patrick Ewing. They post up Larry Johnson. But they’re both hurt. If Johnson gets healthy, it’s a completely different series.” Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Knicks have been on a downturn ever since Johnson went out with a knee sprain in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said CNN’s Fred Hickman of the Knicks transition to a flashy running game. “The Knicks have to play this way. It’s not a team that’s geared [to run], but Jeff’s found himself kinda caught up in this thing.” Hickman believes the Knicks don’t have a chance against San Antonio unless they slow their game down and pound it inside. “They don’t have the personnel to run with these guys.” The Knicks’ best bet is to take on the Spurs in the post with big bodies, one of which has been left on the bench for almost the entire series. “Introduce Herb Williams to the Spurs,” said Hickman. “Spurs, Herb; Herb, Spurs. ‘Hi, I have six fouls to give.’ ”
There was no shortage of advice floating around the Garden hardwood on how to turn the series around. The venerable basketball expert Dr. Jack Ramsay drew almost as much attention as the players from reporters desperate to put a new spin on the sorry storyline that had unfolded during the previous week. In 1977, Ramsay led the Portland Trailblazers back from an 0-2 Finals deficit to win the championship over the Philadelphia 76ers, but he had no quick fixes for this ailing Knick team. Like Van Gundy, Ramsay said he had resisted the urge to change the starting lineup after two losses. (Critics have called for Van Gundy to put the tall and energetic Camby in the starting lineup for a better chance at combating San Antonio’s post presence.) “I thought it would be a sign to the players that we weren’t good enough and I didn’t want them to feel that way.” On the other hand, Ramsay said, his team was at full strength that year. “You make do with what you have. They’re a thin team right now and the only real post-up guy they have is Larry Johnson. You gotta give him a chance to be defended by somebody he can beat. So if you start Camby and Thomas, now one of those guys is going to get Sean Elliott, and if it’s Johnson, he can score off Elliott in the post.”
ESPN’s Aldridge thinks too much is made of such adjustments. “You can’t reinvent the wheel here,” he said. “Use your personnel to your advantage. Do what you’re comfortable doing.” Aldridge questioned suggestions that Camby could become more of a scoring threat if more plays were run for him. That could, said Aldridge, upset the rhythm of contributions that come from his deft and well-timed movement without the ball, upsetting the team’s delicate equilibrium.
The debate is endless. The points and counterpoints of some of basketball’s shrewdest observers could have echoed off the walls of the arena well into the Liberty’s young season. But this Finals matchup, this thrilling Knick run, has unearthed no revolutionary new formulas for basketball victory. Instead, whatever the result, it has proved yet again that while money, media glare, and playground moves may have given professional basketball a scintillating, and sometimes sinister, sheen, it takes more than a stack of highlight reels and a cast of hip-hop ballplayers to transform the fundamental, if unglamorous, tenets of a 100-year-old game. Among them: You can’t win without three reliable scorers on the floor. And that old favorite: Defense wins championships.
No matter how the next week unfolds, those mundane truths will serve the Knicks well as they look toward next season. Especially as they nurture their new-found running spirit.