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The NBA / Sam McManis : Pitino Finds Slumping Knicks Are a Team in Turmoil as Players Bicker

The New York tabloids have resurrected a catchy phrase to describe the suddenly slumping New York Knicks, a nickname previously reserved primarily for the New York Yankees: “Team Turmoil.”

It is a nickname that seems to fit.

After the Knicks’ 10-point loss to the New Jersey Nets Friday night, Coach Rick Pitino strongly criticized his players and promised changes.

The Knicks, who still lead the Atlantic Division by 6 1/2 games over the second-place Philadelphia 76ers, lost eight of 13 games and were entangled in a net of inner-conflicts. A summation of the squabbles:

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--Gerald Wilkins had a shouting match with Mark Jackson.

--Kiki Vandeweghe was said to be shut out of the offense by teammates.

--Forward Charles Oakley was upset that Vandeweghe has cut into his playing time.

--Ditto for Johnny Newman.

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--Rookie Rod Strickland continued to be upset about his bit part as Jackson’s backup.

After the loss to the Nets, Pitino had had enough. He threatened to bench Jackson, Oakley and Newman. And he questioned the attitude and talent of his team.

“We will do away with reputations,” Pitino told Newsday Friday night. “We will rock this boat. I’ve been conscious of egos, because we have a lot of fragile egos. This is not panic time, but we have to get ready for the playoffs.

“I think our heads don’t match our play. We have an over-inflated opinion of ourselves. We’re going to have to face the music.”

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The Knicks held a team meeting Saturday that lasted so long they missed their flight to Washington. Players aired their grievances. Pitino reiterated his gripes. And, apparently, an understanding was reached.

Pitino’s threats turned out to be merely a scare tactic. But they worked. The Knicks recovered Sunday to edge the Washington Bullets, who lately have been tough to beat.

So, all is right with the Knicks, who are close to clinching their first division title since 1970-71.

Selfishness, Part I: Since switching to point guard for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan has become statistic conscious. He has started checking with statisticians to see how close he is to a triple-double. He had a string of seven consecutive triple-doubles broken Friday night.

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“The guys at the scorer’s desk let me know what I need,” Jordan said.

So, too, do the Bulls’ assistant coaches.

“They keep reminding me when I get back to the huddle,” Jordan said. “They say, ‘You need three more of this. You need four more of that.’ ”

Jordan is trying to win over voters for the league’s most valuable player award.

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“If the way I’m playing now doesn’t convince them I’m a complete player, then I guess nothing will,” Jordan said.

Selfishness, Part II: The underachieving Atlanta Hawks have apparently found their culprit--guard Reggie Theus.

Theus has a reputation as a selfish player and things haven’t changed at Atlanta.

At least, that opinion was expressed by several unnamed Hawk players, and a former assistant coach, in a recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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“Reggie is the worst thing that has happened to us all year,” one player said.

Said another: “For a while, I’d just thought he’d lost his game. But now, I can see it’s just Reggie.”

And former assistant Brendan Suhr, now in a similar job with the Detroit Pistons, said the Hawks made a mistake in acquiring Theus from Sacramento.

“It’s been a disaster,” Suhr said. “Reggie told us he’d submerge himself in our system because he only wanted to win at this stage in his career to prove he was not a loser. Obviously, he didn’t mean it. Or, he’s just kidding himself.”

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In defense, Theus said: “It’s a very difficult adjustment, to find a rhythm when you only see the ball two or three times in a sequence. . . . If you ask negative questions, you can often get negative responses.”

The Seattle SuperSonics ended a seven-game losing streak with a victory over the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night, which might temporarily soothe the temper of Coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

After losing to the Lakers Tuesday at Seattle, Bickerstaff yelled so loudly at his team that he could be heard down a long corridor. Two nights later, after losing to Phoenix, the SuperSonics had lost seven of their last 15 home games after winning 17 in a row at one point. Bickerstaff did more than just bark. He benched power forward Michael Cage and replaced him with Xavier McDaniel.

According to the Seattle Times, Bickerstaff could be heard screaming at Cage after he allowed A.C. Green to score a career-high 33 points: “You say you’ve got guys covered, and you don’t have them covered at all. What do you know about defense?”

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Said Cage about his benching: “I’ve got to make sure I don’t distance or alienate myself from the team, which could happen.”

Cage is not the SuperSonics’ only problem, however.

“So many things are wrong, I can’t put my finger on it,” Bickerstaff said. “Maybe I need my toes, too.”

The craziest game of the week had to be Friday night’s battle royal at Chicago Stadium between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons.

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The Pistons won, 114-112, in overtime of a game that had a fight between Isiah Thomas and the Bulls’ Bill Cartwright, five players fouling out, including Jordan and Joe Dumars. Chicago Coach Doug Collins was close to tears after almost attacking the referees.

The Pistons may have won the game, but the loss of Thomas even for a short time obviously will hurt. Thomas said he did not know how he fractured his left hand in the brawl, although he landed several punches and fell to the floor.

Why would Thomas, at 6-foot-1, take on Cartwright, who is 7-1?

“We’ve played the Bulls six times this year and Cartwright has hit me five times,” said Thomas, who was fined $5,000 and suspended for two games for initiating the fight. Cartwright was fined $2,500 and received a one-game suspension. “I stole the basketball from him, and he hit me. I pushed him and was about to turn away when he rushed me.”

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There is a history to the Thomas-Cartwright confrontation. On Jan. 31, Thomas needed six stitches to close a cut over his right eye after Cartwright elbowed him.


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