Knicks dominate Pippen, which doesn't bode well for beaten Bulls PRO BASKETBALL

April 26, 1993|By Harvey Araton | Harvey Araton,New York Times

NEW YORK -- First, Scottie Pippen tried to get off a good shot against Charles Smith, and he simply could not. Then he tried against Anthony Mason, and then against Smith again, and when the game that wasn't supposed to matter was over, Pippen had missed 14 of 16 hopeful flings at the rim and scored four points, and two of those were on a breakaway dunk.

That made Pippen 1-for-15 with two meager assists against live defenders, none of whom happened to be named Xavier McDaniel.

It had been posited earlier in the season that McDaniel was the X factor for the New York Knicks in last season's NBA playoffs against Chicago, and who would knock Pippen off his loping stride this time around?

As not a playoff bead has yet been sweat, it would be premature to come to conclusions based on the Knicks' regular-season-ending 89-84 victory yesterday over the Bulls or the season series that went 3-1 to New York. Except for this: it wasn't Xavier McDaniel who terrorized Pippen last year, and it wasn't thuggery or trash talk either. It was a defensive concept diligently instilled by coaches and passionately executed by players.

The Knicks get in Pippen's face and move their feet and step up to help and Pippen doesn't seem to have a clue as to what to do about it.

"If you contain Pippen, you have a chance to beat the Bulls," said Doc Rivers. "If you stop him, then you should beat the Bulls."

Trying to determine what yesterday at Madison Square Garden meant is like asking the existential pro basketball question of what really constitutes a foul? Yes, both teams played hard, but the arena was devoid of the tension of a game that matters. Before and after, there was enough psycho-babble to make you dizzy, but both sides were going to take whatever they wanted from the game and get on with the rest of their lives and the first round of the playoffs.

For instance, in the Bulls' locker room, after Michael Jordan finished graciously admitting that John Starks "has become a threat," he casually mentioned that Bulls coach Phil Jackson had elected not to press, and, of course, that was how Chicago manufactured its one victory over the Knicks this season, on Christmas night.

"That's something we know we can use," said Jordan.

Assuming there is a next time, that's something they absolutely must use, if Pippen is going to be much help. Pippen's sustenance is the open court, the havoc created by turnovers and the opportunities to exploit the defense in transition. "My whole game picks up when the pace of the game picks up," said Pippen.

The Bulls didn't become a championship team until there was another player on the court with Jordan with the capacity to break the defense down consistently. Now the Knicks, as the Pistons once did, have begun to break Pippen down, and that's too many points and assists for the Bulls to make up against a team as good and deep as these Knicks.

Yesterday was no Garden party for Jordan either. Harassed by the mercurial Starks, he missed 18 shots himself, but his impact on the game -- 21 points, seven assists -- at least was felt. By the fourth quarter, it was hard not to feel sympathy for Pippen, so appalling were his attempts to create offense for himself or a teammate.

With the Knicks leading by 84-75, the Bulls tried to isolate Pippen against Smith on the right side of the basket. Smith bodied up. Pippen tried to create some space with his left elbow. He went to his dribble, into the lane. Smith was right with him. Pippen left his feet. He knew right away there was no shot to take over the 6-foot-10 Smith. He looked to make an interior pass. He settled, almost sheepishly, for dumping the ball back outside.

After Jordan brought Chicago to 84-77, Pippen tried to get a head of steam from outside and take Smith down the left side. Smith angled him to the baseline. Pippen tried to duck underneath the basket, but Patrick Ewing was there, too. Pippen's desperate pass struck Ewing in the head, bounced right back to him, but he had been out-of-bounds and the ball comically went to the Knicks.

"He's quicker than I am, so I try to stay back so he can't go the basket," said Smith. "But I also have long arms, so I can still challenge him if he shoots the jumper."

No one has ever nominated Smith for all-league defense honors. When Smith came to the Knicks, he was in sorry shape, Pat Riley said. But after one season in RileyWorld, Smith bends his knees and moves his feet and who could have imagined him chasing Pippen 20 feet from the basket and not once giving up a deuce off the dribble?

"I thought I got fouled a lot early, and that knocked me out of my rhythm," said Pippen.

Not a good sign. If these teams meet again in the conference final, Jordan said he would try to stop Pippen from thinking the Knicks are getting away with mayhem.

"You've got to forget that and just play," he said. "Scottie needs to get his confidence back. As a leader, I'll be ready to do whatever I can to help him get ready."

It had better be some speech.

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