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But it is on defense that Frazier, endowed with hands "quicker than a lizard's tongue," as a rival once described them, really excels—and that goes for the Knicks in general. When Frazier or Bradley or Barnett steals the ball and suddenly breaks into the clear, it is seldom the result of one man playing showboat or taking unnecessary risks. "Sometimes we gamble, but usually we calculate," says Holzman, whose emphasis on team defense has his players constantly prepared to help each other on guarding assignments. No aspect of a team's play more accurately reflects the coach's philosophy and ability to teach and inspire than its defense. Holzman's players try, at all times, to maintain specific positions in relation to their own teammates as well as to the men they are guarding. "It was your steal," Frazier was telling Mike Riordan, the Knicks' scrappy substitute guard, in the dressing room after the Boston game. "You should have kept going. You should have gone for it."
"I would have picked him up," said Frazier. "I was leaning that way and I could have kept on going. It was your steal."
The Knicks wear down the other team, and they do it, above all, with their defense. "They're especially tough on the man who has the ball," says Jack Ramsay, the Philadelphia 76er coach. "They're always in a position to prevent him from making his first pass. They're aggressive, they're tough individually and they have an excellent concept of team responsibility."
The talk of toughness might have a hollow ring to it except that the Knicks are overpowering their competition with personnel that, apart from Reed, has no real size to speak of. As NBA forwards go, DeBusschere and Bradley, at 6'6" and 6'5", are both quite small. Even so, their introduction into the starting lineup last year—DeBusschere's after he came from Detroit in the Bellamy-Komives deal, and Bradley's after Cazzie Russell was sidelined with a broken ankle—certainly enhanced New York's tenacity on defense and sharpness at handling the ball. Despite their size, or possibly to compensate for it, the Knicks are playing very physical basketball, something that is often obscured by their quickness. DeBusschere, underrated throughout his NBA career, excels at establishing eminent domain under the backboards. Bradley, the gentlemanly Rhodes scholar, moves extremely well with or without the ball, not the least of the motion involving his elbows. Even the spindly Barnett, whose unorthodox left-handed jump shots make him look like a spinning top about to topple over, gets into the act with some of those clinging-vine tactics he has picked up in 10 years in the league. Personal fouls, it happens, are something else the Knicks are close to leading the league in.
If their fouling has caused a minimum of damage so far, the reason can be found on the New York bench, which time and again has given the Knicks the lift they have needed. In last Friday's game with Cincinnati the first five fell seven points behind in the first quarter before Riordan and the team's two other top substitutes—Dave Stall-worth and Cazzie Russell—combined to put New York back on the beam, hitting 19 points within four minutes. Known as the Minutemen, Riordan, Stallworth and Russell took 20 shots against Cincinnati and made 15 of them. There have been suggestions that the Minutemen may all quit and get their own NBA franchise, but they are probably far better off in their present roles. Russell is a crowd-pleasing one-man gang with the ball, but he tends to be undisciplined, especially on defense. The streak-shooting Stallworth, recovered from the heart attack that sidelined him in 1967, also needs the ball to be effective, while Riordan, who has graduated from last year's assignment as the Knicks' strategic-foul specialist, is just learning what else he can do besides startling the opposition with pell-mell drives through heavy traffic. Enter Nate Bowman, all arms and legs, who spells Reed, and the confusion may turn to chaos, yet the Minutemen score baskets, and their madcap play, in counterpoint to the cohesive style of the first five, seems to unhinge the other team. "When I block a shot or something, it's expected," says Reed, the team captain, who speaks with a quiet authority that makes his words sound as if they're coming from a mountaintop—which, in a sense, they are. "When a second-line guy like Nate does it, it's inspiring."
That the Knicks are only approaching their potential is perfectly clear to Holzman, a trim man who favors rep ties and button-down shirts, keeps his desk unburdened and likes his basketball just so. As he presides over practice at the Garden, his rubber-soled shoes easy on the floor, there is even something slightly fastidious about the way Holzman efficiently scoops up a loose ball, pivots smartly and, snapping his wrists for the desired underspin, lets fly with a hoary two-handed set shot. The ball drops through the basket 20 feet away.
"Awriiiight," squeals Stallworth, who was watching the shot.
"Dave the Rave," the coach says, almost to himself. "Dave the Rave."