Monday, May 29, 2000


Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston become a whole lot more effective when they each take 20-plus shots a game.

They are more inclined to develop a shooting rhythm with 20-plus shots, especially when they are at home, as was the case in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.

Sprewell and Houston combined for 60 points on 44 field goal attempts, and the depleted Knicks were able to hold off the Pacers.

There’s no great mystery to this. Shooters need shots, usually lots of them. You could ask Glen Rice in Los Angeles. He is one of the best shooters in the NBA. He averaged 26.8 points a game just three seasons ago. You wouldn’t know that now.

This is not because Rice suddenly has lost his shooting ability. This is because Rice is the third scoring option on a team that features Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, two prolific scorers. Rice is stuck in a confining and frustrating role that lends itself to 3-for-9 shooting performances.

With Patrick Ewing in the lineup, Sprewell and Houston sometimes are bedeviled by a similar dynamic. Ewing, who is averaging 12.1 field goal attempts in the playoffs, takes shots, touches and the low-post game away from Sprewell and Houston.

This is not to suggest the Knicks are a better team with Ewing on the bench, as some in the New York media frequently imply. Ewing remains the Knicks’ best rebounder and low-post defender, and his 7-foot presence provides intangible benefits as well. You can be certain Rik Smits would not have had a 21-point first half with Ewing in the lineup in Game 3.

Yet, equally true, Sprewell and Houston are able to let it all hang out if Ewing is not in the mix. That was obvious at this time in the playoffs last year.

The Pacers, meanwhile, sometimes appear to have almost too many scoring options. Smits was neglected by his teammates after his 21-point first half. Reggie Miller had a 12-point third quarter and Jalen Rose had a 22-point fourth quarter. The Pacers, though, never had all three players complementing one another at the same time.

The Pacers also endure extreme mood swings on offense, largely because Mark Jackson and Travis Best are antithetical point guards.

Jackson is a pass-first floor leader who knows how to a run an offense. But he is slow afoot, which sometimes leads to problems on defense and limits the Pacers’ ability to get easy baskets in transition.

Best is a quick, dribble-happy, shoot-first type, which gives him an all-or-nothing dimension. He is either very good or very bad, and the Pacers are consigned to follow his lead.

With Best looking to shoot and Sam Perkins and Austin Croshere coming off the bench to hoist 3-pointers, the Pacers have a crowd of perimeter-oriented triggers.

The Pacers also have a tendency to succumb to a kind of self-imposed raggedness on offense. It’s not the opposition’s defense. It’s the makeup of the Pacers. They have that train-wreck capacity, and when they are bad, they are really bad.

Pacers coach Larry Bird is walking away after the season. Maybe he is right. Maybe a team becomes less responsive to a coach’s objections after three seasons.

“We had an opportunity, up by one point at halftime, with 24 minutes left, to take control of this series,” he said. “But we had too many guys who didn’t show up, who didn’t do anything to help us. We’d take them out and then they would do the same thing when we’d put them back out there.”

The Knicks have no such concerns going into Game 4 today. Regardless of Ewing’s status, the show now belongs to Sprewell and Houston. The burden on Sprewell and Houston to score in bunches is even more pronounced after Marcus Camby sprained his right knee in Game 3. Camby’s hustle points have to be replaced by someone, and no, Chris Dudley is not a candidate.

In the short term, the psychology favors the Knicks. Sprewell and Houston can let their shots fly. They know their team is outmanned and the Pacers are supposed to win the series. Good feelings are in abundance as observers marvel at the resiliency of the Knicks.

In this stress-easing environment, as Sprewell and Houston demonstrated last spring and again in Game 3, finding a comfort level is easier.

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