Knick with the knack

Allan Houston: Once thought too low-key for New York, the shooting guard is the toast of the town after giving the Knicks life with his 34-point spree in Game 3.

June 23, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- When Allan Houston arrived in New York three years ago, his reception wasn't exactly warm. Reggie Miller was considered the top shooting guard available among the free agents, and Houston -- though obviously a gifted player -- was considered too low-key. Too nice. Too soft.

"I didn't worry about my personality in contrast with this city," Houston said yesterday, reflecting on his arrival in summer 1996. "I just wanted to continue to be the type of person that I was and continue to work hard. And I knew that things would work out."

Houston is still low-key, and to say he's nice is an understatement -- he comes across as the perfect gentlemen. Oh, yeah, he's also the best player on the New York Knicks, further laying stake to that claim with his 34-point outing in Monday night's 89-81 win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

The Knicks are still in a bind, needing to win Game 4 tonight to even the series at 2-2 and give themselves a legitimate shot at the title. But in a series in which many felt the Knicks were on the verge of being swept after their first two losses, the team now has life. Houston, and to a lesser extent Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson, provided the opportunity by combining to score 74 points.

Houston is averaging 24.0 points in the series, but the big difference Monday night was his ability to get to the free-throw line. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard made all 12 of his free-throw attempts. In the first quarter, he was able to get Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson into foul trouble, and by the second half he was shooting over Steve Kerr.

"I've guarded Michael [Jordan], I've guarded Kobe [Bryant]. Allan Houston is a terrific player, and he's one of the best shooting guards in the league," said Elie, who was ineffective in 26 minutes. "The Knicks have to make some decisions next year on whose team this is going to be. Allan can drive, he can shoot, he can come off screens. He does a lot of good things."

After a standout college career playing for his father, Wade, at Tennessee, Houston came into the league mainly as a three-point shooter. By his third year in Detroit, when he hit 42.7 percent of his three-point shots, Houston had emerged as one of the league's premier long-range shooters.

These days, Houston is more prone to score with the pullup, mid-range jumper. He'll pound two quick dribbles while driving toward the basket, leaving the defender off-balance. Suddenly he'll elevate, easily shooting his short jumper over a helpless defender.

"I remember him as a standstill shooter, but guys work on their game and evolve," said Sean Elliott, who -- because of the lockout-shortened season -- had not played against Houston in more than a year. "That intermediate game that he has, they don't show plays like that on the highlights.

"And as far as him being soft?" Elliott said. "Soft guys don't come out in the Finals and score 34 points."

Houston said yesterday that the pullup shot has always been his strength, despite his reputation early in his career.

"Ever since high school, that's the one shot or range I was always comfortable with," he said. "The way the game is being played now, that's the one shot that can be very effective.

"You look at a lot of the great players, Walt Frazier and [Earl] Monroe and Oscar Robertson, those guys lived off of that mid-range jumper because nobody could do anything about it. Hopefully, it's something I can continue to be successful with."

The real key for Houston's development has been the injury to Patrick Ewing. With Ewing in the lineup, all of New York's offense ran through the post and Houston was basically a spectator. With Ewing sidelined, the Knicks have looked for scoring in other places -- mainly in the hands of Houston.

What has made Houston successful has been his penchant for making big plays at big times for the Knicks. His game-winning shot in Game 5 of the first round against the Miami Heat made New York's improbable playoff run possible. He also played well in the Game 6 clincher against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.

"I think his hunger to continue to score even when he scores well early is different now," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. "I thought for the first year and half he was here, he was very content if he got 20 points to stay at 20. Now I think he has a continuing hunger to continue to try and score."

Houston agrees that his mentality has changed over the years.

"You look at a guy like Michael, even a guy like [Latrell Sprewell], the great scorers in this league are not happy with 20 points," Houston said. "They have a great start, they want to keep it going.

"Early in my career, I was a little unselfish and figured, if I was getting mine, I could still get some assists," he added. "But there's a way I think you can do both. It's just learning the game and learning just to stay hungry and aggressive for 48 minutes."

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