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Alexander Wolff
May 14, 1990
Mo Cheeks drove New York to a stunning win over Boston
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May 14, 1990

Oh, Those Cheeky Knicks

Mo Cheeks drove New York to a stunning win over Boston

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Checks put together the kind of stretch that, in this building under these circumstances, has always been Bird's prerogative. With nearly half the third period gone and Boston in apparent control with a seven-point lead, Cheeks, as he put it, "felt I had to be a little more aggressive on the offensive end."

As demonstrated by Magic and Isiah, a good point guard is a bellwether; his own best stats are happy symptoms of what his team is doing right. Cheeks sank free throws with equanimity, five of six down the stretch. (The Knicks were a cool 25 for 29 for the afternoon, better—and no one thought this was possible, not here—than the Celtics' 19 for 25.) Three times in a row he flipped in circus layups off drives. Betwixt and between, he found time to make a 20-footer, to whip a pass to a cutting Wilkins for a dunk and to tip loose a long rebound that resulted in a break and a Ewing throwdown.

When the final quarter began, the Knicks' lead of four seemed just right for another Garden ghost job. Yet New York wouldn't trail the rest of the way. Again, still, always, it was Cheeks. His 21 points on Sunday seemed an aberration, for he had dominated the two previous games without scoring much. Having Mo on your side means having what it takes: in this case, eight of 10 field goals, seven assists, two steals and even a paroxysm of emotion, in which every Knick took part, after Ewing's improbable three-pointer. "That was it" said Cheeks. "After that, we felt it was our fate. And prior to that, Bird missed that dunk.

"When he missed it, we went on our way. Some things you just feel are meant for you. That it's your time to win."

Oakley had upbraided his teammates in the press after the Knicks' Game 2 debacle, specifically about selfishness (a club-playoff record 43 assists in Game 4 put that charge to rest) and the ever-evil "lack of intensity."

"We were playing like it was the regular season, and the Celtics were talking about us as if we were an expansion team," Oakley said. He didn't name names, other than to say he wasn't exempting himself, so the commentary had good effect.

But a closer reading suggested that Ewing may have been one of Oakley's targets, for failing to seize and maintain his customary position in the low post. Yet look who stepped up to take responsibility for even that: "It was my fault," said Cheeks, "for not getting Patrick the ball in the right spot."

The Knicks' resurrection vindicated, on several counts, New York general manager Al Bianchi, the NBA technocrat whose emotional state had been one of the more melodramatic sidelights of the series. He was ashen-faced after the travesty of Game 2 and seething when he learned that coach Rick Pitino, who left the Knicks after last season, was second-guessing New York's defensive schemes from his ivory tower in the Kentucky blue-grass. For most of the second half of the season, the jury had still been out on the Strickland-for-Cheeks deal, a Bianchi production. Indeed, it seemed as if the foreman had been passing notes to the judge all through the winter, as the Knicks split time between the incumbent point guard, Mark Jackson, and Cheeks, and lost often while doing so. With Jackson playing a total of 10 minutes in the three New York victories, and Cheeks never once taking a seat on Sunday, consider that case now closed.

Pitino had left New York in a huff, partly because of philosophical differences with Bianchi over the Knicks' offense. Bianchi felt New York's second-round elimination at the hands of the Bulls last season could have been averted with a better half-court game. But Pitino had put disproportionate faith in the ability of his full-court defense to generate points. Jackson has changed the defensive emphasis. After Game 2 the Celtics saw defensive pressure primarily in the half court. The so-called "soft press"—along with decisions to move Oakley onto (and into) the much taller Robert Parish and to put Ewing on Kevin McHale—forced Boston to set up its offense farther and farther from the hoop. This in turn reduced the distance that the adventuresome New York perimeter players—Newman, Wilkins, Tucker and Cheeks—had to travel to double down. The strategy also kept Parish and McHale at a safe remove from the backboards, allowing Ewing and Oakley to outrebound their counterparts easily in the Knicks' three victories.

As the Boston Garden scoreboard clock ticked down, Cheeks thought back to the sweetness of eight years ago, when Celtic fans, in tribute and resignation, sent up a chant of "Beat L.A.!" for the victorious visitors from Philly.

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