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Riley’s System Put to Test Against Nets : NBA playoffs: Suspension of Mason comes under scrutiny: Was it real punishment or motivation?

NEWSDAY

So the Knick’ calendar turns to the season of the big-mouth suspension. Now it’s the playoffs that test how well Pat Riley’s system really works.

Does suspending Anthony Mason rank up there in the annals of motivation with Yogi Berra slapping the harmonica out of Phil Linz’s hands, and with Gil Hodges’ long march with Cleon Jones?

Is Mason Riley’s Oscar? Or is it just too difficult to win with more effort and less talent? Heads shaved to demonstrate Knickerbocker unity prove only that the barber works hard.

For three years Riley’s demands have made this team greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been a triumph of mind over body.

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He taught his lesson. Are they still listening?

It’s not easy to work as hard as Riley demands, and it’s much more fun to play offense than it is to work defense. But that’s how he has made this team win games without soaring individual talent.

The Nets have talent in Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson; they haven’t yet shown they have learned to soar. The Knicks and the Nets opening the playoffs against each other is stark contrast.

The Riley lesson is “Team first and team last.” And this coach is always the coach.

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“It’s all about just an attitude,” Riley explained when he suspended Mason with three games remaining in the season. “When it’s put to debate, somewhere along the way you have to put an end to it.”

In his time with them, they’ve had disagreements, but this was no time to be thinking about self. So he put an end to it--at least he tried to.

If only Mason had played the harmonica in the dressing room we’d have a direct parallel with the Yankees of 30 years before. Linz, a cheerful utility infielder, played the harmonica on the bus after a costly September defeat when the manager thought a somber mood was in order.

Berra erupted in anger. The Yankees came alive and recaptured first place.

Not that someone should compare Berra’s style with the high-falutin motivational authority of Riley. But Riley’s thinking goes back to that time when a coach spoke and players were expected to obey.

“You see people questioning authority, and you ask if we’re going to pander to it,” Riley has said. “I don’t buy it. I’ve seen young players hold the team hostage to their attitude. I’m not going to be held hostage.”

Mason’s instrument was the mouth organ. Mason’s argument that he should be playing more might be ignored, but not when it was a slur on Charles Smith. Riley couldn’t ignore that.

Gil Hodges didn’t write motivational books, but his thinking was close to Riley’s. Hodges’ purposefully slow walk to retrieve Cleon Jones from left field spoke to all of them: If Jones’ feet hurt too much for him to play hard, he wasn’t going to play.

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The Mets then walked on the moon. The point of lift-off was clear.

Note that the Knicks responded by coming out of their two-week funk to ride into the playoffs with three forceful wins.

The contrast is the coaching style of Chuck Daly, who has two championships to Riley’s four. When Coleman was going around saying things about management, about teammates, about the coach--being so mindless as to have a T-shirt made that called an offer of $69 million an insult--Daly turned a deaf ear.

“There are times when you don’t want to hear what a player says,” Daly has said.

Coleman has said if he had to practice hard, he wouldn’t have enough left for the games. Daly accepted that, however reluctantly, as the most effective route. Coleman, however, sometimes coasts through games, too.

Riley’s Knicks go hard in practice. Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley couldn’t do it any other way. History says that the best way to wash out a big mouth is for a respected player to get it done. Ewing has the stature, but that’s not his personality. So Riley did it.

The sticker is that the Nets beat the Knicks four of their five meetings this season. That fact has caused several of the Nets to bray as if they had won something.

Daly notes that one of those games was in the general confusion after the All-Star Game, and one was a comeback when the Nets made a couple of “wild” shots. “Besides,” Daly said, “postseason is a much different situation from the regular season.”

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The Knicks having gone to their woodshed in South Carolina, I consulted Bill Walton, the noted television sage. A man who is 6-11 and has red hair is hard not to notice, even on TV.

Walton will be honored next month as a member of the GTE Academic Hall of Fame, which means he’s also a smart man. He had a 3.2 average at UCLA, and was credited with making 21 of 22 shots in the NCAA championship game (actually 25 of 26, if you consider the four baskets the refs ruled dunks, which were illegal then).

Walton favors the Knicks, mostly because he likes Riley’s work. “The history of basketball is not written by guys who are not disciplined,” said Walton, a disciple of John Wooden.

Ewing isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon and Oakley is one-dimensional and John Starks is the prize in the box of Cracker Jack--one never knows what they’ll get from him--especially coming back from the long layoff. What they are is Riley’s team.

Riley is the best at preparing a team. The Nets could beat them one game at a time on one-sided emotion, but the Knicks have the edge over a five-game struggle. “The Knicks can wear you down with size, strength and depth, and the big guy in the middle,” Walton said.

Calling their offense “not classic” is being kind. “Give Riley credit for getting them to focus on the things they do well,” Walton said. “They won’t have lapses on defense in the playoffs.”

So Ewing has small hands and can muster himself for only one jump at a time. Walton said there are only three players who can make the repeat leap--Olajuwon, Dennis Rodman and Shawn Kemp.

So there isn’t a player on the Knicks whose focus is to make everybody around him better, as it was for Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. So there isn’t one player who will get the basket.

“In the history of the game there are only a couple of players who can shoot with the game on the line, a defensive hand on the hip and the other in the face and be expected to score,” Walton said. He cited Jordan and Jabbar.

Mere mortals have to depend on the context of the team. That’s what Riley was telling Mason, and anyone else who was still paying attention.


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