But discussing offense when the subject is the Knicks is like talking about choreography when the subject is Madonna. New York's essence is the bulge of Oakley's biceps, the nasty look on Mason's face, the cocky gleam in Starks's eye. The Knicks are trying to do what perhaps no other team has ever done—win a championship almost solely with defense and intimidation. The Pistons? Yes, they were tough defenders and intimidators, but they also had three guards ( Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson) who could score consistently, two go-to post-up guys underneath (Mark Aquirre and James Edwards) and a center ( Bill Laimbeer) who could bury shots from three-point range. Sure, the Knicks want to score more, but they know their success ultimately hinges on their ability to reduce any game to a half-court test of survival.
Their opponents know it, too, which is precisely why Bull coach Phil Jackson has begun a war of words that is about as subtle as an Oakley elbow. Jackson takes every opportunity to discuss the Knicks' physicality, hoping that his barbs will somehow douse their fire. "This is a team that wants to decapitate us and quarter us," Jackson said before Chicago carved up New York like a Christmas goose 89-77 on Dec. 25. At the same time Jackson likes to plant with his team the seed that the Knicks are not worth worrying about. "I think they're too old," Jackson said after the Christmas win. "They've got Patrick Ewing, who's what, 30? And Rolando Blackman, who's 33 or whatever. They're players with a lot of habits, an accumulation of personal failure."
Those comments get the steam rising from Riley's mousse. " Jackson has crossed the line," Riley says. "He has insulted our team, insulted our veteran players. We've got to realize, though, that the more Jackson talks, the less it has to do with what goes on on the court.
"I hope we're there to play Chicago [in the playoffs], I really do. And we could be. If I've learned one thing about this game, it's that the regular season is a process you have to get through to find your true identity in the playoffs. As long as you endure the process without coming apart, without all the scrutiny paralyzing you or the expectations reducing you, you'll be fine. And I think we're going to be fine.
"When I see this team, I see a big tightly wrapped box," says Riley, dipping into his rich cache of metaphors. "It's Christmas morning, and the box is under the tree. You don't know what's in it yet, but you can't wait to open it up. That's the New York Knicks right now."