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The NBA : Knick Coach Isn’t Ready to Talk About Title

Late-night banter last week between David Letterman, the talk-show host, and Rick Pitino, the wary New York Knicks coach:

Letterman: You guys, to get to the championship, who do you have to beat?

Pitino: We have a long way to go before we talk championship.

Letterman: But let’s say you’re in the playoffs . . .

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Pitino: Are you in the New York media?

Letterman: Just barely. I haven’t paid dues in a long time. (Pause) What? Oh. We gotta go here . . .

Championship expectations, noticeably absent in New York since the days of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, have been rekindled for many Knick faithful, Letterman included.

Two seasons after winning just 24 games, the Knicks lead the Atlantic Division by 4 1/2 games over the Philadelphia 76ers. That has prompted talk of a revival of a franchise that last won a National Basketball Assn. championship in 1973.

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Despite 3 losses in 4 recent road games--to Golden State, Sacramento and Seattle--the Knicks, who beat Portland Sunday, bring a 26-14 record into tonight’s game against the Lakers at the Forum. They figure to be a factor in May, when the playoffs begin, and perhaps in June, when the interlopers have been eliminated.

Wouldn’t you agree, Rick?

“Well, I can’t speak for other people (in New York),” Pitino said in a telephone interview before Saturday’s loss to Seattle. “I know what our expectations are, and they certainly aren’t (as lofty) of some other people’s.

“We’re a young team. We still have a lot of growing and maturing to do. So, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’ve only won 2 championships in the history of the franchise, and I have too much respect for teams in this league to ever say we (could) win it. All we can do is work hard and, hopefully, get lucky.”

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The Knicks would seem to have the talent to contend.

A healthy and productive Patrick Ewing and point guard Mark Jackson, last season’s rookie of the year, have reminded some of Reed and Frazier in their primes.

“You spend all your time worrying about Jackson and Ewing, and the other guys get all the easy shots,” Indiana Pacers forward Chuck Person lamented.

Those other guys include rebounding forward Charles Oakley, almost stolen from the Chicago Bulls in the Bill Cartwright trade, and a core of perimeter shooters--rookie Rod Strickland, Johnny Newman, Trent Tucker and Gerald Wilkins--which have enabled the Knicks to lead the league in 3-point shooting.

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It appears, though, that the Knicks’ inexperience may be surfacing in this 7-game, 11-day trip that Jackson last week said “will be a good measuring stick of how good we really are.” In a 14-point loss Wednesday at Golden State, the Knicks missed 23 of 28 3-point shots as well as 16 free throws. In a 6-point loss at Sacramento on Thursday, their pressure defense faltered and they missed 10 of 12 3-point attempts. In a 2-point loss Saturday at Seattle, where the SuperSonics now have won 15 straight home games, the Knicks blew a 19-point lead, again because of cold perimeter shooting.

But Sunday night in Portland, the Knicks rallied from a 20-point deficit.

If it’s any consolation to the Knicks, only 2 teams--Cleveland and Detroit--have winning records on the road this season. Given the apparent parity of the league, it seems as if many teams, including the Knicks, have a chance to snatch the title from the Lakers.

On that point, at least, Pitino agreed.

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“That’s right, anybody could win it,” he said. “But I still think we’re a few players away (including a backup center), and I think we still need patience and experience.”

Moreover, Pitino said he is not concerned by the Knicks’ West Coast slide.

“I don’t think this (trip) is a test, because every team we’re playing on the road has a very, very strong home record,” Pitino said. “And we’ve never been on a trip this long. It’s something new there.

“In the games we’ve lost, we made mistakes we normally don’t. We’ve been missing free throws and 3-pointers. But we’re playing hard.”

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It figures to get more difficult for the Knicks tonight, considering that the Lakers have a 17-game Forum winning streak. The Lakers, in fact, handed the Knicks their only loss at Madison Square Garden this season, 110-98, on Nov. 22.

“That was one of our poorest games of the year,” Pitino said. “You have to credit their defense and game plan for that. They just out-played us. But we can play better than we did that night.”

Talk Radio: A recent guest on a radio call-in show in Philadelphia, outspoken 76er forward Charles Barkley strongly criticized the underachieving Atlanta Hawks.

“The Hawks won’t win because the NBA will not allow you to play with more than one basketball a game,” said Barkley, responding to a caller’s question. “They’ve got five great players who are not willing to sacrifice. So, it’s not going to work. “The Hawks are the most selfish team in the NBA. You can have too much talent. That’s one of their problems. They have people who want to make sure they get their 25 points and 20 shots every game.”

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When Barkley’s comments appeared in last Friday’s edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hawk Coach Mike Fratello brought the story to practice and, in front of his players, dramatically stamped his foot on the newspaper.

Hawk players gave the following reactions to reporter Jeff Denberg of the Journal-Constitution:

--Moses Malone: "(The 76ers) have the five most selfish guys in the league in one guy (Barkley).”

--Doc Rivers: “I don’t think about Charles. I don’t think he thinks.”

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But are the Hawks, whose lineup features scorers Malone, Dominique Wilkins and Reggie Theus, selfish?

“I don’t even have to answer that,” Wilkins said. “Just watch.”

Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly, who was born in Greece but grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, said he was not daunted by last week’s riot in the Overtown section of Miami, forcing the postponement of Tuesday night’s game between the Heat and Phoenix Suns.

“It was just stones and bottles,” Seikaly said. “Where I come from, it’s rocket launchers and grenades. You can duck and hide from rocks and bottles.”

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Larry Bird is said to be on schedule to return to the Boston lineup March 1, and it appears that the Celtics are trying to give him some more support.

The Hartford Courant reported last week that the Celtics are trying to acquire 6-foot 10-inch Jose Ortiz from the Utah Jazz for draft picks. The Celtics reportedly are able to maneuver around salary-cap limitations.

Meanwhile, Bird has been working out in a swimming pool.

“I still get a lot of soreness, and the biggest problem is I still can’t run or jump,” Bird told Boston writers. “Once I get my strength back, I think things will start looking a lot better.”

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