There recent success of the New York Knicks can be described in numbers: eight wins in their last nine games through last weekend, 11 out of 13 on the road, 22 out of 27 overall, all reflecting a decidedly bullish trend after the Knicks' dismal first half of the season. Yet for some New York masochists, apparently intent on making a sow's ear out of a silk purse, the Knicks' resurrection from the ashes of December presents an odd problem. "Things were so much easier then," said one fan after a recent 119-97 win over the Atlanta Hawks. "You went to the Garden to boo the Knicks. I'd be going 'Booooo, Hubie Brown,' and the guy behind me would be going 'Booooo Bill Cartwright.' Everybody was united. The Knicks stunk. Now...."
The rapid turnabout has astonished and embarrassed all sorts of would-be experts who were ready to write off New York when its record dropped to 14-26 on Jan. 21. Now the Knicks, 36-31 at week's end, have all but clinched a spot in the upcoming playoffs. Even last Saturday's 96-90 loss to the Washington Bullets hardly diminished their status as the hottest item in the league short of Philadelphia, which before Saturday had been the only team to beat the Knicks since the beginning of March. Sandwiched between those two defeats were eight consecutive wins, seven of them against clubs with winning records. The New Yorkers also had six straight victories on the road and since Christmas hadn't lost any game in which they had scored 100 or more points. "We're not blowin' any smoke about what we're doing," says Brown, who's in his first season as coach of the Knickerbockers. "It's an old story—good things come to those who work hard."
A few months ago, however, hard work was paying off only in hard knocks. Despite the fresh presence of Brown, a confirmed workaholic who had guided winning teams in Kentucky (ABA) and Atlanta by emphasizing defense, the Knicks began by making last year's 33-49 performance, worst in the Atlantic Division, look like That Championship Season.
For starters they lost their first seven games. Much of that time was spent playing Getting to Know You. Only four of 12 Knicks had been with the team in 1981-82. Three of them—Forward Bernard King, acquired in a trade with Golden State, free agent Louis Orr and first-round draft choice Trent Tucker—had joined New York after training camp had begun. Like everyone else, the three had difficulty mastering Brown's complicated system, which on defense employs a series of traps and switches that has held opponents to a league-low 97.6 points per game.
On offense, though. Brown's plan for the Knicks appeared to be "Don't shoot." Only seven times in their first 20 games did the Knicks score 100 or more points, which often meant that New York's defense would manage to keep things just close enough for the offense to come up wanting at the end. Ten times the Knicks lost games in which they were ahead or tied entering the final minute of play. Five of those losses came on last-second shots.
"But people didn't want to talk about that," Brown says. "The thing you have to do is stick to what you're doing and not get depressed. I built winners in two places by using this system, and I haven't changed a play. The style has worked in the pros for years. The important thing is to have the players believing in it."
Atrocious record and all, the Knicks somehow hung together and on Jan. 14 faced the Hawks in Atlanta. Two injuries that occurred in that game have ironically provided the two biggest keys to New York's eventual turnaround. At the time, of course, the losses of King, who severely sprained his right ankle and would miss 14 games, and Guard Edmund Sherod, who was kneed in the groin by the Hawks' Eddie Johnson, seemed a disaster. King, the Knicks' leading scorer in each of the previous 18 games, was as much of an offense as New York could muster, and Sherod, an untouted play-maker from Virginia Commonwealth, had been one of Brown's favorites from the beginning of the season.
That was partly because Sherod, not especially quick or overpowering on offense, was at least smart enough to follow the instructions bellowed in no uncertain terms by Brown from the sidelines. "Give the ball to King" was the most frequent command. As a result, the Knicks performed like so many programmed home computers out on the floor.
Sherod's injury, which cynics suggest makes Atlanta's Johnson the most valuable Knick, forced Brown to give more playing time to Paul Westphal, who had been in and out of the coach's doghouse. If he didn't actually improvise more, Westphal at least provided a backcourt threat on offense that had been needed even before King was hurt.
Also because of the injuries, other changes had to be made. One was that the Knicks were forced to run plays through more than one or two options—something they have continued to do even after King's return. The second was that new offensive options had to be found. And the third was the development of the Knicks' bench. Led by Guard Rory Sparrow and Forward Sly Williams, the second team plays a quicker, more frenetic game than the starters do and has suddenly become no less than devastating. Last week in four games the New York's Not Ready for Prime Time Players outscored the opposition's subs 171-109.