No stranglehold on playoffs

Knicks: Though Latrell Sprewell has put his ugly past behind him, New York's faster, softer team isn't a postseason lock.

April 14, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

On the pages of the tabloids, he was referred to as "Hoop Thug," "Sports Goon" and "Choker." But upon his arrival in New York, Latrell Sprewell was immediately embraced by fans, who saw him not as the symbol of what was wrong with professional sports -- but as a talented player who could make the Knicks a championship contender.

"It's been better than I expected," Sprewell said of being embraced by the New York fans.

That was then, a relaxed Sprewell speaking before his first home game with the Knicks in February.

This is now, three weeks left in the season with the Knicks fighting not for a top spot in the Eastern Conference -- but for simply a spot in the playoffs.

As recently as last week the Knicks were 10th in the Eastern Conference standings. Going into tonight's game against the Washington Wizards at the MCI Center, the Knicks (21-17) are in seventh place, one of 11 teams that figure to vie for the eight playoff spots in the closing weeks.

That New York has not locked up its 12th straight playoff spot is not entirely the fault of Sprewell, whose 16.1 points per game ranks third on the team. And perhaps the Knicks would be better than their current record had Sprewell not missed 13 games with a stress fracture in his right heel that was discovered after the second game of the season.

But on a team that has thrived on intimidation in recent years, the Knicks' mediocrity stems from not being tough enough. Just two teams allow fewer than the 85.7 points yielded by the Knicks each game. But when Charles Oakley was traded to Toronto for Marcus Camby, it took away the player who for a decade did the team's dirty work as well as served as the team enforcer.

"Losing Oak, without a doubt, hurts you," Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Harper, a former Knick, said after the teams met earlier this season. "You need guys willing to do the dirty work, and obviously Oak is one of those guys.

People always try to get younger but getting younger doesn't necessarily mean you're getting better."

And that's clearly the case with the Knicks, who are 0-5 against the top two teams in the Atlantic Division -- Orlando and Miami. Starting with tonight, the Knicks will play seven of their final 12 games on the road, which is not a good sign for a team that has a 6-12 road record.

"Teams aren't afraid of us anymore," point guard Chris Childs said before last week's loss to Orlando. "Why that is, I think we all know: We have to put a stamp on who we are as a team."

Matter of style

The style most effective for Camby and Sprewell, the two key newcomers, is one of a fast-breaking offense that yields easy scores. But New York still plays with a lumbering, methodical style that often features aging center Patrick Ewing.

So Camby, who has never been a physical player, is ineffective as evidenced by his averages of 6.2 points in just under 19 minutes. He matched a season-high with 19 points in a win against New Jersey on Sunday, but prior to that Camby had failed to score in double figures in 13 straight games.

As for Sprewell, when he returned from his injury he had to get adjusted to a new role off the bench. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard has at times been quick to launch jumpers before the New York offense sets up, which has led to several shot selection discussions with coach Jeff Van Gundy.

But through it all Sprewell has been on his best behavior, a far cry from the player who made headlines in December 1997 for twice assaulting Golden State Warriors coach P. J. Carlesimo.

The Warriors tried to suspend the final three years of his four-year, $32 million contract, but an arbitrator ruled Sprewell could return this season. Once the lockout ended, the Warriors immediately traded Sprewell to New York, where he's looking for a fresh start.

"I'm not some monster," Sprewell said, sitting on the floor of the home locker room in Madison Square Garden. "The incident was a terrible thing for basketball, and I hated it happened."

TV talk and The Incident

But still Sprewell said he had no idea that he would be castigated on a national level.

"It didn't have to get to the point where `Geraldo,' `Oprah' and everyone around the world seemed like they had an opinion," Sprewell said. "I felt the entire thing could have been kept in the locker room. It's happened in sports before, and usually it's kept within a team and an organization.

"An unfortunate thing happened," added Sprewell, the cornrows on his head bouncing as he shook his head. "And all of a sudden everyone's pointing a finger at me."

The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement now has a clause that says a player can be terminated for physical attacks against officials and employees of teams and the NBA. Many refer to it as "the Sprewell clause."

Sprewell is asked to compare the reaction to what he did, and the reaction to Kevin Greene of the Carolina Panthers, who pounced on a coach with cameras rolling during a football game last season.

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