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COMMENTARY : Breakthrough for the Knicks


NEW YORK — Maybe in the crucible of the seventh game the Knickerbockers learned something about the game and about themselves. They also can play basketball.

Under all the pressure of the moment and of six years of moments against the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks overcame both history and the devils inside themselves.

Maybe it's a breakthrough both ways.

Beating the Bulls Sunday doesn't mean a championship; it was the franchise's most meaningful victory in 21 years. "You learn as a team," said John Starks, who should have been made to sit in the corner often. "I think we learned from Chicago. You never see them lose their composure. That's what the champion does."

One never knows what fires rage inside Starks in the heat of the contest. Maybe the next time he and Greg Anthony, Anthony Mason or Charles Oakley are behind, under pressure, frustrated, they'll revert to their past. Maybe they'll respond with the kind of barbaric tantrum they threw at Chicago Stadium. Some cats never learn.

Some do. Maybe this was a breakthrough.

The Bulls went out as a champion with all credits due. They went to the last minutes of Game 7 with a chance to win, with a chance to extend a noble reign. The Bulls leaped to a 57-53 lead late in the third quarter. They had a chance to preserve themselves as the nemesis of the Knicks. They asked the Knicks to crack.

With the Valkyries of the home sound system urging them on, with the expectations of the crowd waving in the nap of each of those swirling towels, the Knicks restrained themselves by the seats of their pants.

"They came out today and played in a way we're capable of playing," said Dave Checketts, the president and chief architect of this team. No tripping, no chest-butting, no brutal elbowing.

Well, hardly any. Give the officials credit for setting the rules early. Not even their harshest critic, Phil Jackson, accused the Knicks of brutality this time.

Checketts was embarrassed by his players in Chicago, particularly in the sixth game: If they couldn't beat the Bulls, at least they could leave the Bulls so sore they'd regret it. Checketts noted how Starks tripped Scottie Pippen to stop his breakaway.

Rarely have the hometown critics been so unanimous in their distaste for the way their team played. These Knicks were unsympathetic, unlovable thugs, destined to poison themselves with the venom of their own game. And now the Knicks would be emboldened by the home crowd, by the home court.

"Before the game I told John I don't want to see that again," Checketts said. "They came out today and played with great control and great poise. It says a lot about this team."

What it says can be heard in several ways. Instead of coming apart when the Bulls took away what the Knicks like to do, the Knicks showed a resourcefulness that's been unseen from them. They kept up that relentless defense without the strongarm. And they kept their poise.

"I don't know how much poise you can play with in the seventh game," Pat Riley said. He was dodging the issue, but only for a moment. He knows about poise and self-control from his past life. He hadn't been able to teach it to these people.

He identified the situation of trailing 57-53 as the test of the Knicks, perhaps as the test of his coaching.

Instead of being frustrated by the double-teams the Bulls were throwing up around Patrick Ewing, the Knicks suddenly discovered what they like to call "the little game." Suddenly it dawned on Ewing that when he was doubled, the ball didn't always have to go back outside. There was a big man open. And the ball went from Ewing to Oakley or Ewing to Mason. Or from Ewing to Oakley to Mason.

It's never a surprise to Ewing that he's doubled. Why then didn't he learn that before? "It's a personal thing," Derek Harper said. "Patrick being the main force, a lot of times he's going to look for his shot first."

This team is impressive for its willingness to work. The reputation for court wisdom belongs to the team of the other era.

These people had to grow past the Bulls. In the process, they relegated the demon of Chicago Stadium to history. But that's another story. They had been eliminated by the Bulls four of the last five years. The Bulls had been their personal barrier. A little brother has to overcome the aura of his big brother. In their time, the Bulls had to overcome the Pistons.

Maybe giving the Knicks credit is all splitting homecourt hairs because a Chicago loss to the lowly Celtics on the last Friday of the season took the chance for an advantage away from the Bulls and gave it to the Knicks. We'll never know how much that meant.

We know the Knicks beat the threepeat Bulls, headed off their march to the "4-peat" lettered on Pippen's sneakers. Riley saw a parallel in how his Lakers had to overcome the Celtics.

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