Knicks' Riley not bullish about playoff chances

February 02, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

When someone suggests that his Knicks have the best chance of displacing the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls, it almost makes New York coach Pat Riley's lacquered hair stand on end.

"It's almost a stupid statement to say this team could come together and win a championship," said Riley, as his team prepared to play host to the Washington Bullets at Madison Square Garden tonight. "You don't know what it takes to win those things."

Riley knows firsthand, having won four NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. He spent a year as a sportscaster before the Knicks called on him to resurrect their team last season.

After a 51-31 finish last season, in which the Knicks pushed the Bulls to seven games in the conference semifinals, New Yorkers began thinking the team was ready for its first title since the 1972-73 season.

But Riley realizes that his Knicks (25-15) still need a lot of fine-tuning before taking the next giant step. Even after winning four straight before stumbling against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night, he underlined his team's lack of a killer instinct.

Riley told the New York Post: "Five times this year we've surrendered leads in the last quarter and lost games. This isn't the YMCA or the biddy league. We have a couple of guys, when they feel the game is won, begin thinking, 'This is fun.' Then some of the things we do out there, or don't do, are outrageous."

Riley mentioned no names, but veteran playmaker Doc Rivers agreed with the coach's assessment.

"Defensively, this is the best team I've played on," said Rivers, who also played for Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers. "Defense is what wins championships. But we've got to get better offensively [the Knicks rank 26th] to win it all. When we get teams down, we have to keep them there."

Riley keeps juggling his lineup to find more consistency. Forward Charles Smith, acquired from the Clippers for point guard Mark Jackson, has proved a major disappointment, averaging 11.7 points and shooting 42 percent from the field.

Tony Campbell, obtained as a free agent, wallowed on the bench most of the season, but now is getting most of Smith's minutes. Shooting guard Rolando Blackman, acquired from the Dallas Mavericks for a future No. 1 pick, has had physical problems and is nursing a sore back.

The Knicks are most vulnerable at the point, with second-year guard Greg Anthony still experiencing growing pains. This has prompted opponents to pressure and trap the Knicks defensively, tactics that helped the Milwaukee Bucks and Hawks upset New York recently.

"Pressure tends to flatten you out," said Riley. "Nobody wants to make a mistake. Guys start asking if they should take the responsibility. The ones who do, that separates the winners from the losers."

The Bullets are expected to employ pressure to keep the Knicks from setting their favored slow tempo, with center Patrick Ewing as the focal point of the halfcourt game.

"We've got to try and speed things up," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld, who intends to stick with his experimental lineup employing small forward Buck Johnson against the opponent's shooting guard.

* The Knicks say they have no room on their roster for F Bernard King, who was released by the Bullets last month. "We've got 14 guys under contract now," said personnel boss Ernie Grunfeld, a former teammate of King's at Tennessee and in New York.

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