The warnings were repeated time and time again. Watch out for the New York press. Look out for those New York traps. Full-court pressure defense, as everyone plainly understood, was Rick Pitino's personal bogeyman, ready to spook the most comfortable of NBA dynasties on a moment's notice.
How's this for a scare? With 3:32 to play in the third quarter last night, the New York Knicks led the Boston Celtics, 74-71. And they had not pressed the home team once.
"One thing we wanted to do early in the year was to get that press ready for fatigue, back-to-back games, the surprise element," said Pitino. "But our man defense was so good in the first half, we had no reason to go to it.
"I have too much respect for the Boston coaching staff and their personnel to think they couldn't stop our press. They had too much time to prepare."
Winning without the press? At that magical 3:32 mark of the third quarter, seemingly it could be done. New York's half-court man defense was both solid and bothersome. The team was denying the ball, doubling low, picking up the cutters. The Celtics' offense looked disjointed, ragged, jumbled.
The Knicks couldn't have hoped for anything better.
But Pitino has another bogeyman following him, and this one tends to turn on his team at the worst possible moments. This demon has yet to be tamed by Patrick Ewing & Co. through a long NBA season.
When, oh when, will the guys from New York learn to shoot the ball?
Exhibit A: A 38.5 percentage from the floor in the second half.
Exhibit B: Nine consecutive misses starting right after that 3:32 mark, during which time Boston ripped off a nifty 13-1 run that sent the visitors into a nosedive.
Exhibit C: Ewing did not score a basket in the final 17:01. "Shooter" Johnny Newman was 3 for 13. Floor general Mark Jackson was little better at 4 for 11.
"I wouldn't say they shut us down," said Ewing, who finished with 16 points, "but a good team should rely on its defense to generate the offense. Tonight Boston played better defense than we did."
It has been the custom with New York to play end-to-end for much of the game, but certainly when the Knicks need to play catch-up, the press is a natural weapon. The Knicks found themselves in a precarious position in the final 3 1/2 minutes of the third and a good part of the fourth quarter. How can you press if you can't set it up? How can you set it up if you can't score?
"Scoring has been one of our weaknesses all year," said Pitino. "Even when our press has been going great, we've never been able to get it on enough times. We've had to learn to work around that."
The lesson did not go particularly well at the most critical juncture of this game. The 13-1 Boston run grew to a 17-3 run, then a 21-3 run, then a 27-5 run and, by the time some semblance of order was restored, the Celtics were up by 20 and cruising to a W in the opening game of this best-of-five playoff series.
"We were in a pretty good situation for a time," said forward Bill Cartwright. "We had our opportunities. We'd make a good defensive play, then throw it away down the other end. It's a matter of taking better care of the ball. We just have to understand what's happening out there and when to slow it down."
They are a young bunch, this New York team, and only one starter in the lot (Sidney Green) had a day of playoff experience before last night. So maybe that's it?
"That's got nothing to do with it," bristled Jackson, a rookie. "Boston has done the same thing against teams with lots of veterans on it.
"We didn't come here just to hang with them. We came out of this game knowing we can play with them, knowing we can beat them."
Winning without the press? Maybe. But it hasn't been done yet.
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