Blowing leads is troubling trend for Knicks

January 20, 1994|By New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- There are two redeeming qualities about the New York Knicks. They work hard and they win. That's it. Perhaps that might be enough for any other team in any other city. But these Knicks have championship aspirations in a town that has them, too.

So while they continue to keep their "heads above water," as coach Pat Riley said, it is still alarming the Knicks continually treat sizable leads as if they are something bad.

The Knicks have squandered or made an adventure out of double-digit leads in 11 of the past 12 games. That's called making the coach -- who never lets them see him sweat -- wipe his forehead too many times.

Indeed, figuring out this club is as difficult as a Rubik's cube: You think the Knicks are all together when they construct large leads and then it turns out they are psychedelic confusion as they blow them.

"I could use the old cliche about killer instinct," Riley said. But he realized it was useless. The Great Motivator is stumped on this one -- so far, at least. In the past three weeks, Riley has been unable to utter an encouraging, inspiring or charging word that could prevent his team from folding -- at least in a short stretch -- like so many napkins.

Not that it's Riley's fault. You know he never lets up. But his players do.

"We just keep blowing leads," guard John Starks said. "Sometimes I think human nature sets in and we lose our intensity. . . . I don't know, to be honest. We're just not sustaining anything."

If they are good enough to gain a sizable lead, they should be good enough to keep it. Right? Not. What happens is this: teamwork and hustle build comfortable leads and selfishness and complacency lose them.

Sometimes the Knicks are haunted by a natural tendency to believe the game is theirs when they get up by 10 or more, and thus they relax. Suddenly, the other team has uncontested shots. Suddenly, the Knicks are handling the ball carelessly. Suddenly, they are hoisting ill-advised jumpers. It happens to every team on occasion. But 11 times in 12 games constitute a habit for the Knicks.

"It's definitely a problem we have to work on as far as offensive and defensive intensity," point guard Greg Anthony said. "We have a tendency to go into this mode of trying to outscore teams and that hurts us. We win with rebounding and defense. We don't do that, we'll have problems."

The Knicks (25-9), who faced the Spurs last night at Madison Square Garden, have been able to catch themselves in all but two of the games they thought they had won. But the problem is that a pattern has been established and it is bound to plague them if not corrected.

"You have to be concerned since it's happened so much," guard Derek Harper said. (Of course, Harper can be excused for his shoddy play when the Knicks have a lead. Harper, coming from Dallas, isn't used to being in that position.)

"But you know what?" Harper said. "We're still winning. Where I've been, I'll take wins any way we can get them."

Weathering the move

Harper is making his way around New York just fine. There really has not been much time for him to enjoy the city. And even if he had time, there's this weather . . .

"Man, this snow and sleet and rain and stuff is crazy," Harper said. But it still beats Dallas, "that's for sure."

And even the New York media can't make him change his mind. "Well," he said, "there are about 20 more people around every game than in Dallas. This is the big city. There are more writers to bring up more controversy. It's a major difference from Dallas.

"In Dallas, no matter what time of year, the Cowboys are the team. Here, it's the Knicks. So there's much more attention being paid to what we do."

Robinson sitting out

David Robinson of the Spurs was expected to miss last night's game at the Garden. He underwent magnetic resonance imaging on his right knee Tuesday. Although it showed no problems, the Spurs chose to keep Robinson out of last night's game and today's game in Minnesota. He has been in discomfort the past two days and during Monday's warm-up, he turned and "felt a tremendous pain" in the knee and missed the Bullets' game.

Heart and soul

Among those who do not receive enough credit for the Knicks' ability to maintain a positive outlook despite injuries and the distraction of constant trade rumors are Riley's left- and right-hand men, assistants Dick Harter and Jeff Van Gundy.

They are as dissimilar as any assistants can get: Harter is 63, was a college head coach for 18 years, an NBA assistant for seven-plus years and the first head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 1988. Van Gundy turns 32 today, was a head coach at Jesuit High in Rochester, N.Y., for one year and is in his fifth season as a Knicks' assistant.

But together they provide Riley with resources that have been at the heart of the Knicks' reign at the top of the Atlantic Division.

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