SI Vault
Ian Thomsen
February 12, 2001
Air ConditionNot even Michael Jordan can immediately elevate the Wizards
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February 12, 2001

The Nba

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If Jordan spent more time in Washington, he might have dealt more effectively with Strickland and forward Tyrone Nesby, who was escorted by security guards to the locker room when he refused to leave the bench after yelling at Hamilton during a game last month. But the Wizards point to their recent five-game winning streak as proof that those incidents were defused efficiently with Jordan's input from afar.

"People seem to think we'll play harder if he's here," says Chris Whitney, who has taken over for Strickland at the point and is largely responsible for the team's improved play of late. "It's like he's going to wave a magic wand and make everything right, like his attendance is going to guarantee us a victory. If he is what it takes for us to play hard, then we shouldn't be here."

New York's Defense
So Good It's Offensive

No matter who comes or goes on their roster, the Knicks can be counted on to stymie all opponents. Though New York traded a shot blocker ( Patrick Ewing) for a shot taker ( Glen Rice) in the off-season, it was still allowing a league-low 84.1 points per game as it prepared last Thursday for a visit by the 76ers, the top team in the NBA.

"Our best players buy into it," coach Jeff Van Gundy said of his emphasis on defense. "Everybody in this league can be better defensively, and no one needs to be a liability. Glen Rice has turned out to be a much better defender than people thought. I notice that the Lakers' offensive numbers have all improved this year, and their defensive numbers have gone the other way." With a straight face he added, "Maybe that's because Glen left."

Some might call it a magical transformation when a player who has been accused of selfishness becomes a reliable team defender. Others might question whether that kind of magic is good for the league. Before Ewing was traded, the thinking seemed to be that his lumbering, elderly presence prevented New York from achieving its potential as an up-tempo unit led by Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. It turns out that without a traditional center, the Knicks are a low-scoring half-court team. Last season they scored 92.1 points per game; through Sunday they were down to 87.8.

Van Gundy would like his players to run more, especially at the end of games, when their lack of post-up scoring becomes more apparent. But the coach would prefer that they conserve their energy for defense to keep the ball out of the paint and to prevent opponents from scoring easy points on fast breaks, second shots and free throws. He notes that, of the top six teams in fast-break points scored last year, four were lottery teams, and the other two didn't make it past the second round of the playoffs. Of the top six teams in field goal percentage defense, however, three reached the second round, two lost in the conference finals and one won the championship. "Those people who appreciate defense will like watching the NBA right now;" he says. "Those who like offense probably shouldn't watch."

Entering their Thursday showdown, the second-place Knicks trailed the Sixers by 6� games in the Atlantic Division. "I'm not as interested in catching them in the standings as I am in chasing them in the standards they've set," Van Gundy said. "They're much more consistent than we are in their defensive intensity, their willingness to battle."

In that regard Philadelphia has seized New York's turf, and Van Gundy was challenging his players to reclaim it Just before the Sixers- Knicks game, Philly coach Larry Brown was asked about New York's defensive-mindedness. "I don't always buy those defensive stats," said Brown, noting that some teams with impressive defensive stats (he declined to name them) enhance their numbers by playing at a slow offensive pace. He went on to express admiration for the Knicks' selflessness and toughness.

The Sixers proceeded to pick apart undersized New York, with Allen Iverson finding his teammates cutting backdoor for layups and alley-oops. The Knicks recovered from an early 15-point deficit to make a game of it in the final period, when they held the 76ers to five field goals and 18 points in 21 possessions—an admirable effort, considering that power forward Kurt Thomas was out with a sprained right ankle; his backup, Othella Harrington, was making his New York debut; Rice was playing with a sore left foot; and center Marcus Camby was rusty after serving a five-game suspension.

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