Sure, Knicks tough to like, but they're also hard to beat

May 31, 2000|By John Eisenberg

The NBA playoffs resemble an episode of "Columbo" this year. You know the ending as soon as the show begins. How you get to the ending is the only mystery.

Obviously, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to win the title. They're the class of the league, particularly now that Shaquille O'Neal is making his free throws.

But while we wait for the Lakers to finish dry-cleaning everyone in their path, some special stuff is happening in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

As much as you might not want to, you have to give the New York Knicks their due.

They're the team everyone outside of New York loves to hate, but they're putting on quite a show.

They're coming from behind to win games and series, delivering unfailingly in the clutch, refusing to let key injuries stop them and generally exhibiting as much heart and sheer tenaciousness as any team in any sport.

It's the same stuff they pulled last season, when they made it to the NBA Finals, which means it's about time to start giving them credit for being more than just a snarling, surly advertisement for what's wrong with pro sports.

As Butch said to Sundance while watching the posse chase them, "These guys are good."

You can't get all warm and fuzzy over a team that reportedly hired strippers to perform at its pre-playoff training camp one year; a team that includes Larry Johnson, who sprayed paranoid invective at reporters during the Finals last year; a team led by Latrell Sprewell, the infamous coach-choking guard.

Throw in the usual doses of Big Apple media overkill and fan myopia and there's a lot not to like.

But at this point, any objective, fair-minded fan has to give the Knicks credit, however grudgingly, for being tough in so many ways.

Mentally tough. Tough to put away. Tough to discourage.

Just tough to beat, period, unless they're completely outmanned, as they were in the Finals against the Spurs last year.

But put them on a playing field any more level than that, and it's not a good idea to bet against them.

Oh, sure, maybe the Indiana Pacers will dig deep and find a way to knock them out in the Eastern Conference finals, which resume tonight in Indiana with the series tied, 2-2. But don't bet on it. Pacers coach Larry Bird, a realist, knows his team is getting out-hearted.

And if the Knicks do advance to the Finals, they'll certainly get trounced by the Lakers.

But that shouldn't lessen the credit they already deserve for having prevailed so often in trying situations.

Last season, after barely qualifying for the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East, they upset top-seeded Miami in the first round, swept Atlanta and eliminated Indiana in six games in the conference finals. In all three series, they won a pivotal game on the road, including Game 5 of the five-game series with Miami.

This year, they qualified for the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the East and swept Toronto and Vince Carter in the first round to set up a rematch with Miami. The Heat appeared ready to exact revenge when it won three of the first five games and took an 18-point lead in New York in Game 6, but the Knicks rallied to win and then won Game 7 in Miami.

Now, with Patrick Ewing, Marcus Camby and Sprewell fighting various injuries, they have come back from an 0-2 deficit to tie the Pacers and swing the momentum their way.

The lesson? Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy might be a hollow-eyed runt, a wrinkled, career assistant the front office was ready to replace last year, but it's about time to stop belittling him and start giving him credit for his skills as a motivator and a clinician.

That his players are willing to dig deep and play for him is obvious. And after watching them change abruptly from a walk-it-up philosophy to a running game in the wake of Ewing's injury, it's clear they're in the hands of a coach who knows what he's doing.

As for the players themselves, no one wants to hear it, but Sprewell has gone from being the nation's No. 1 sports villain to a guy who is, well, almost likable.

He's a diplomat in the locker room, friendly with reporters and a warrior on the court, a resourceful player who keeps finding a way to win. His reputation will never recover from his decision to put his hands around P.J. Carlesimo's neck one day a few years ago, but if anything, it's become clear he should be judged on more than that low point in his life.

Sprewell actually is the good guy on the Knicks, the guy who keeps a low profile and doesn't give anyone any trouble.

That's not going to change many fans' low opinion of him, of course, just as few fans are going to let the Knicks' second straight playoff run alter their view of the team as a testament to wretched jock excess.

But dig beyond those simplistic labels and there's substance, a team that plays hard and smart and refuses to go away.

If the Lakers are the class of the league, the Knicks are the heart. No matter what you think of them.

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