THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Knicks' Reputation Isn't Tarnished, but Reinforced

Further adventures of the New Bad Boys: Imagine that, the New York Knicks in trouble again.

No, it wasn't all their fault. Yes, the Phoenix Suns were burning to prove they could stand up to a good Eastern team. Yes, Kevin Johnson provoked the fight with Doc Rivers.

But the single stroke of genius that lowered this from another garden-variety no-punch mill-around that the NBA office could have dismissed with $5,000 worth of fines belonged to New York Coach Pat Riley's problem-child, Greg Anthony, who came off the bench in street clothes and sucker-punched KJ from behind.

Voila! The final count was $294,000 in fines and suspensions, making it the most expensive melee in NBA history.

That's without the cost of Riley's suit pants, ripped when he wrestled on the floor with Johnson. We're talking major money if Giorgio isn't comping Riles.

When Anthony lost it, the Knicks had a nine-game winning streak, a one-game lead over the Chicago Bulls for best record in the East and a chance to draw within two games of Phoenix for No. 1 in the league. They were down, 59-53, at halftime of a highly anticipated game. Afterward, they got to finish the week without either of their point guards, with the Suns that much farther ahead and the Bulls that much closer. Forget embarrassing anyone else, for what Anthony did to his own team, $86,000 was light.

Backed up against the wall again by one of his madcap musketeers, Riley had to riposte as best he could.

That was, after closing his dressing room and leaving town without comment.

"This situation was unfortunate and was instigated by Kevin Johnson, period," Riley said the next day from the safety of Salt Lake City.

"This entire thing was perpetuated by a weeklong barrage of media coverage on the Suns, about how soft they were and about how Eastern Conference teams had beaten them. It's almost like they had to prove their manhood. They decided it was going to be against us."

Anyone who's been to Phoenix, retirement capital of the West, can imagine how high feelings were running. The "weeklong barrage" consisted of a single prominent story in the Arizona Republic two days before, detailing the Suns' 1-5 record against the top four teams in the East, all of whom have significant size advantages over Phoenix.

If the Suns were keen to show they could stand and fight, the factors at play last Tuesday night are always in play with the Knicks. When you have a reputation for intimidation, opponents feel challenged to fight back. It happened to Riley's Lakers after Kevin McHale wiped out Kurt Rambis in the '84 NBA finals. They forgot the running game that had given them leads during the final minute of the first four games, fought fire with fire and lost the series.

This Bad Boys stuff is tricky these days. Commissioner David Stern is dead-set against violations of public order and faster to act than in Bill Laimbeer's heyday. Laimbeer had a surer touch for tiptoeing over the line, and besides, he was in Detroit, which most people had no feelings about other than a desire to pass through as quickly as possible. The Knicks are from New York, are already hated on general principles and are right where the league office can watch them.

No fools, they have cut out most of the flagrant fouling that made last spring's playoffs so exciting/dangerous. Riley has fought a battle of wills with Anthony, John Starks and Anthony Mason, trying to instill some judgment with their zeal.

If he's winning, it's slowly.

After a loss to the Clippers at the Sports Arena during which Starks threw a cup of water in Mark Jackson's face, Riley benched all three during a big game against Orlando and was all but canonized in New York for standing up for principle.

Two months later, Lethal Weapon 3 were arguing among themselves on the floor during a loss at Orlando. "I'm just going to have to live with it," Riley said.

Shortly thereafter, Starks got in trouble for ending Kenny Anderson's season with a flagrant foul, though that one was an ordinary hard foul and looked more like bad luck than bad intent. Compared to Starks' flying headlock on Scottie Pippen last spring, it was incidental contact.

Still, people like the new Knick style as much as Riley liked the old Celtic style.

Or less.

"I see a team building a particular image and gloating over that image," Sun President Jerry Colangelo said. "That's a problem. This is not the first problem the Knicks have had. 'Tough Town, Tough Team' (the Knick slogan) is the style being instilled in that team, and the way they play. I don't think that's good."

It won't even play at home.

If Riley really wanted to see a weeklong media barrage, he had only to return to New York.

"Anthony Punches a Ticket Outa Here," read a headline in the New York Daily News.

"Riley Should Share Part of the Blame," said the New York Times.

Riley is sharing in the blame, all right. Said General Manager Donnie Walsh of the Indiana Pacers last season after Charles Oakley's $10,000 hit on Reggie Miller: "(Riley) has gone from an orchestra leader in L.A. to Hannibal Lecter with this team. . . . Everyone in the league knows what New York is doing."

Everyone is responding in kind.

Said mild-mannered Sun Coach Paul Westphal: "For all of you who wondered if we can play Eastern basketball, was this Eastern enough for you?"

Plenty.

FACES AND FIGURES

This was the week that was: Overshadowed by more prominent events--and what isn't?--the Dallas Mavericks won three games in eight days. They need three more to avoid designation as the biggest losers in NBA history. "If we can stay close down the stretch, the pressure is not on us to win," interim Coach Gar Heard said after the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Bullets all collapsed during the fourth quarter. "The pressure is on the other team not to lose." . . . Hold that coach-of-the-year ballot: San Antonio's John Lucas, who started 23-6, is 8-10 since. Avery Johnson, the point guard he reclaimed, is fading as opponents make the Spurs play half-court, fall back and dare him to shoot. Lucas shook up the lineup, starting Sean Elliott and Willie Anderson in the backcourt, benching Johnson and Dale Ellis.

Ejection of the year: Phil Jackson's nemesis, Darrell Garretson, got him 27 seconds into a game at Philadelphia, after which Michael Jordan scored 43 points and the Bulls won anyway. "Everybody took their turns," Jackson said of his Chicago assistants. "John (Bach) had the defense, Tex (Winter) had the offense and Jim (Cleamons) had the substitutions." Said Horace Grant: "I think Michael was in charge." . . . It's still not nice to fool with Mother Nature or Jordan: Jordon pronounced himself "embarrassed" when Washington's LaBradford Smith scored a career-high 37 points on him and went out to get that many on Smith in the rematch the next night--in the first half. He missed a free throw and settled for 36 by halftime. . . . Having pitch-forked soon-to-be-fired Ron Rothstein, Detroit players are trying to woo Dennis Rodman, who hates his coach, back into the Pistons' fold. "So he has a few problems, but it's like being a member of the family, a brother," Isiah Thomas said. "No matter how upset you get with him, you have to do what's best for him." Rodman still says playing somewhere else would be best for him.

Negotiations update: Ken Norman says he won't talk to the Clippers until after the season, when he will be an unrestricted free agent, joining Danny Manning, who says he won't talk to them until 1994. The Clippers are still sending signals out that they won't pick up Ron Harper's $4-million option, making him unrestricted, too. Just asking: Is there someone on this team they can sign? . . . Proving they can win or lose anywhere under any circumstances, the Seattle SuperSonics beat the Jazz at Utah and the Rockets at Houston without Shawn Kemp and Derrick McKey, came home, got Kemp and McKey back and, before 37,401 in the Kingdome, lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, who didn't have Clyde Drexler, Rod Strickland or Kevin Duckworth, then lost to the Pacers. . . . The SuperSonics' four games in the Kingdome this season averaged 36,985, raising their season average to 16,308, or 2,100 more than the Coliseum holds. "We've had enough of the Kingdome," General Manager Bob Whitsitt said. "We don't need half of Portland driving up to see the game." . . . To make up their snowout in Philadelphia, the Nuggets had to fly back last week--after playing the night before in Denver--and lost, 88-80. The league will help compensate them for their extra travel expenses. No word on who will compensate the 7,000 fans who sat through it. . . . It had to end this way: The Golden State Warriors had eight players, the league minimum, for Thursday's loss in Denver, including two CBA pickups.

"If I needed a point guard," one general manager said of Cal freshman Jason Kidd, "I'd want him--right now." . . . Congratulations to Sidney Lowe, nice-guy coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose interim appointment was made permanent after he impressed General Manager Jack McCloskey by punching his fist through a blackboard. Look for more NBA assistants to punch holes in blackboards. . . . Reggie Miller missed a breakaway dunk with 5:20 to play in a tie game at Phoenix, then scored 11 points the rest of the way in a Pacer victory. Yelled Detlef Schrempf in the victorious dressing room: "If you can't dunk it, throw it to someone who can!" . . . Pacer Coach Bob Hill threw Pooh Richardson out of a recent practice. Asked Richardson: "Why do you (the Pacers) have so many disgruntled players on a team with so much talent?" Further question: Why are the Pacers always so disgruntled, no matter who the coach is?

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