New York's characters have character

June 22, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks can be obnoxious, even obscene, but say this for America's anti- heroes: Their impure hearts never stop beating.

Down two games in the NBA Finals, the Knicks were in their favorite position last night: backed into a corner, fighting for survival, the entire world against them.

Naturally, the Knicks made it difficult on their home court, never losing the lead but squandering advan- tages of 14 points in the first quarter and 10 in the fourth.

Naturally, they missed 19 of their 23 shots in the third quarter, with Latrell Sprewell going 0-for-6 from the field and missing four free throws.

And naturally, they held on for an 89-81 victory, even though coach Jeff Van Gundy's decision to start Marcus Camby largely backfired.

Somehow, the Knicks always find a way.

"You saw the character of the Knicks tonight," Van Gundy said. "We played extremely hard. We hung in when they made runs. We were very resilient."

Allan Houston was the biggest hero, scoring a game-high 34 points, including 12 in the third quarter to help the Knicks preserve their three-point halftime lead.

"A pain in the neck," is how San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich described him.

"I hope to be all the time," Houston said with a smile.

But it wasn't just Houston.

Larry Johnson, suffering from a knee injury, showed more mobility, helping the Knicks hold Tim Duncan scoreless in the fourth quarter and hitting a big three of his own.

Camby overcame foul trouble to deliver a follow-up jam and turn-around jumper in the final minutes. And the irrepressible, sometimes irresponsible Sprewell rebounded from his self-described "terrible" third quarter to score 10 of his 24 points in the fourth.

All this occurred after the NBA fined both Johnson and the Knicks $25,000 for the forward's profanity-laced outburst toward the media at Monday's workout.

Will Johnson stage an encore at today's workout?

Will Patrick Ewing try to pull a Willis Reed in Game 4?

Will general manager Ernie Grunfeld be rehired?

If Sprewell represents the American Dream, as he claims in his latest commercial, then all things are possible with the Knicks trying to win their first NBA title in 26 years.

"You've got to give them a lot of credit," said the Spurs' David Robinson, who had 25 points. "They outhustled us to loose balls and rebounds. They were very active. They were obviously pumped up by the crowd."

Appealing as the Spurs are, this series isn't a blanket morality play. Camby believed in himself when Van Gundy wouldn't. Houston overcame critics who said he needed to be more aggressive. Sprewell became a fan favorite on merit -- his game is occasionally maddening, but always electrifying.

The Knicks still don't figure to overcome the Spurs, a team that had won 44 of its previous 50. But at least now NBC can exhale. At least now this series has life.

Heck, the Spurs could be headed to Baltimore by the end of next week if the Knicks become only the third team in NBA history to rally from a 2-0 deficit in The Finals.

Our Spurs entered last night with a record 12 straight postseason victories, including six straight on the road. The last time they lost back-to-back games was in late February. But by now, the Knicks are accustomed to ridiculous odds.

They entered the playoffs as a No. 8 seed. They needed a running jumper by Houston with 0.8 seconds left to eliminate Miami. They lost Ewing in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, and had Johnson hobbling in the first two games of this series.

The buzz in New York yesterday -- other than the bull that escaped an illegal rodeo in Queens, only to be gunned down by police as it disrupted traffic -- was that Ewing might return despite his partially torn left Achilles' tendon.

The temptation for Ewing might be even greater now that the Knicks can tie the series, and the tabloids will only feed the hysteria. But the Knicks showed last night that they can defeat the Spurs without their center.

Duncan, fighting double- and triple-teams, was 0-for-4 with three turnovers in the fourth quarter. He finished with only four free throws despite getting ample touches throughout.

The perimeter-oriented Knicks did a better job attacking, finishing with 30 free throws to San Antonio's 22 (Houston was 12-for-12 from the line). They also committed only 10 turnovers, half as many as the Spurs.

For whatever reason, the Spurs never quite got it together. Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson were in immediate foul trouble. Elie and Popovich were charged with technicals in the first quarter. And Duncan and Robinson were not nearly as dominant as in the first two games.

Still, Duncan seemed unfazed, and Robinson said he expected a better performance in Game 4, explaining, "Our team absolutely hates to lose. We take it personally when we lose. We always respond well to losses -- always."

Chances are, it was the Spurs' one clunker of the series -- the Knicks still have no long-term answer for San Antonio's two 7-footers. But the next two games are at Madison Square Garden. And love 'em or hate 'em, the Knicks won't die.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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