Johnson stands tall, too

Spurs' point guard winning battle against Knicks' Childs, Ward

June 22, 1999|By PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK -- The biggest mismatch is obvious.

San Antonio big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson vs. New York's Larry Johnson, Chris Dudley, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby is David vs. Goliath without the height differential.

But at the lower altitudes, there was another one-sided battle being waged through the first two games of the NBA Finals.

He hasn't been as celebrated as Duncan -- whose two-game devastation of the Knicks' frontcourt has him well on his way to being named Finals MVP -- but San Antonio point guard Avery "The Little General" Johnson has been just as superior to New York's two-headed combination of Charlie Ward and Chris Childs.

Obviously, it's going to be up to guys like Duncan, Robinson and Sean Elliott for the Spurs, and Johnson, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston for the Knicks to finish the plays that will determine whether San Antonio or New York takes home the title.

But the pace of these teams needs to be set by the point guard, and as the Spurs' 2-0 series lead indicates, Johnson has thus far pitched a shutout.

Granted, from looking at the scores of the first two games, it's obvious that neither team is operating at peak efficiency on offense. But San Antonio is two victories away from a title because Johnson has been helping San Antonio do what it likes most: get the ball to Duncan a lot and simultaneously keep Robinson involved.

"With Tim and Dave, I'm always mindful of their shot attempts," said Johnson, who has averaged 6.5 assists through Games 1 and 2. "If I have to force the issue, I'll pass up the shot to get them the ball. You've got to keep Dave involved or he tends to float a little."

Ward and Childs, meanwhile, have been as ineffective for New York as they have been all season.

In two games, the Knicks have yet to score 80 points and are shooting a frosty 35.6 percent from the floor.

And neither Ward nor Childs has given any indication that they are capable of guiding the Knicks' offense into a more positive direction.

"What do you mean lack of?" Ward responded when asked about the minimal contributions from Childs and him. "We've done a good job of getting the balls to the guys. We just haven't made the shots that we've needed to.

"Everyone likes to criticize the point guards. I think we do a good job. I'm not saying we do it all the time, but you can't please everyone. We just do the best we can with what we have."

To be fair, Ward has a valid point. The Knicks' problem is they've committed their offense to two point guards who are, at best, marginal starters who realistically are backups.

New Jersey Nets guard Stephon Marbury earlier this season said the Knicks "will never win a championship" with Ward and Childs. "Never, ever, ever. It's just not going to happen."

Now, because Ward and Childs are playing in the Finals and the only way Marbury will get into Madison Square Garden for the Finals is with a ticket, the Nets' floor leader doesn't have much room to criticize. But he's probably right.

There's no denying that Ward and Childs, who have combined for 16 points and 10 assists compared to 14 and 13 for Johnson, have been utterly disappointing.

The Knicks' offense is in such disarray that Sprewell, New York's leading scorer at 22.5 points playing small forward, lobbied Sunday for a chance to play point guard last night.

That would allow the Knicks to shift Larry Johnson, who is being killed by Duncan, from power to small forward, and start Thomas or Camby at power forward.

The Knicks did just that in the Eastern Conference finals when Indiana Pacers point guard Mark Jackson was dismantling Ward and Childs. A bigger guard might be able to disrupt Avery Johnson and, by osmosis, the Spurs' offense.

"It worked [against Indiana]," Sprewell said. "Who's to say if it'll work now? We don't know, but at least it's worth a try at some point during the game. Maybe that's something that can create a mismatch that favors us."

In a damning statement about the worth of Ward and Childs to the Knicks' attack, New York coach Jeff Van Gundy didn't exactly dismiss the notion.

"The one idea that's gotten a lot of play is starting both big guards," Van Gundy said. "That's a viable option, but we're not going to start that way."

The Spurs, on the other hand, have few complaints about the way their "Little General" is directing things.

With Duncan and Robinson anchoring a defense that led the NBA in field-goal percentage defense and blocked shots, the Spurs -- who had won a record 12 consecutive playoff games before last night -- can usually get by when the offense isn't on all cylinders.

And Johnson, a former NBA journeyman who was cut twice by the Spurs -- once while attending Robinson's wedding -- before finally becoming their starter in 1994, always makes sure just enough pistons are popping correctly.

"Some guys get older and worse," said Johnson, 34, who also had stops in Seattle, Denver, Houston and Golden State in his 11-year career. "I got older and better.

"I'm a cerebral player in a lot of ways. The game is mental for me, not physical anymore. The only way I measure how good I am is by wins."

By that standard, Johnson is standing head and shoulders above Ward and Childs.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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