Rick Pitino, the coach of the New York Knicks, is pacing frenetically in front of his team's bench at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have just scored, and the Indiana Pacers are preparing to inbound the ball and advance it upcourt. This is common-place stuff in the NBA, but not against Rick's Knicks. Rick's Knicks don't like teams to get the ball upcourt.
"Hands, Oak! On him, Oak! That's it!" Pitino shouts. (He wants power forward Charles Oakley, whose nickname describes his indomitable presence at the front of the press, to pressure the inbounds pass. Somehow, the Pacers get the ball in.)
"Over, Dougie! Dougie, over!" (Pitino wants backup guard Gerald Wilkins, whose teammates call him Dougie after Wilkins's favorite rap singer, Doug E. Fresh, to challenge the dribbler, Vern Fleming.)
"There it is, Mark! Trap, Mark! Trap! O.K., back." (Pitino wants point guard Mark Jackson to trap Reggie Miller, and after Jackson fails to get to Miller in time, Pitino wants him to go back over the half-court line.)
"Up, Patrick. Watch the long one, Patrick." (Pitino wants center Patrick Ewing, the last line of defense in the press, to come up and cut off a passing lane at midcourt, while at the same time guarding against a long pass behind him—in other words, to watch out for everything.)
"Up on him. Johnny, Johnny, that's you! That's you!" (Pitino wants small forward Johnny Newman, who has streaked up the floor at full speed, after the Pacers advanced the ball to midcourt, to approach the Pacers' Fleming from the blind side and steal the ball from behind. The Knicks call this "back-tipping.")
Only 10 seconds have expired and, surprisingly, Pitino has not. His blood pressure may have risen a little, and he may have to push a few strands of black hair away from his choirboy face, but he will live to make life miserable for the Pacer offense again. And again.
These are Rick's Knicks at the midpoint of the NBA season: young, sassy, ornery, intense, fearless. And, after home-and-away wins over the Pacers (120-111 at the Garden and 113-106 in Indiana) wrapped around a rousing 125-109 rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Garden last Thursday night, they led the Atlantic Division by 4½ games over Philadelphia and owned the league's fourth-best record (30-16).
"I remember what all the 'unnamed coaches' kept saying last season," says Pitino, who at 36 is in his second season at the helm in New York. " 'The Knicks can't win with that press.' 'Pitino's going to wear out his players.' 'They can't win with that college system.' " He stops and flashes a small smile. And...? "And here we are."
Yes, here they are, a onetime novelty item now conspicuously displayed with the NBA department store's big-ticket goods. The Knicks' press and a ban-anything-but-the-bomb mentality on offense—they're on course to shatter the NBA records for three-point attempts and conversions—have made them fun to watch and fearsome to play.