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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Lakers Have the Right Stuff--or Simply More of Same

News item: Del Harris becomes Laker coach.

Comment: Huh?

The job description for the man who followed Magic Johnson was supposed to be a big name who coached an exciting, up-tempo game and could command the respect of talented post-teens.

Harris is middle-aged, coaches a pattern game and hasn’t been seen hanging out at any rap concerts.

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The problem: Jerry Buss reportedly wanted the new coach to have pro experience. Rick Pitino turned them down and Jerry West’s list of college prospects--Roy Williams, Bob Huggins and Gary Williams--didn’t qualify.

It’s an NBA conceit that only pro coaches can coach the pro game. Indeed, a college coach moving up needs an experienced assistant and/or half a season to adjust, but basketball is basketball.

What, the Lakers didn’t have half a season to play with? A bad start might cost them the playoffs?

If you want bright young coaches, they are in college. If you want pro experience, you either find a disgruntled star--Don Nelson was merely slightly disenchanted--an untried assistant or a retread.

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Harris is widely respected. Nelson, for whom he worked as an assistant, no doubt vouched for him. Mike Dunleavy, an assistant under Harris in Milwaukee, considered him one of the sharpest coaches in the game. West thought about hiring him two years ago.

They have him now. If they get him some players and show him some patience, it will be OK.

Otherwise, it’s the oldest dance in the biz, the merry-go-round trip to nowhere.

BULLS-KNICKS: SAY GOOD-NIGHT

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Their rivalry has lost nothing, but their day is ending.

For two years, the Knicks and Bulls were the best show in the NBA. Now Commissioner David Stern simply hopes to resolve this series without asking for U.N. peacekeepers.

In 1992, Pat Riley saw his first Knick team collapse at the end of the regular season, then turned them around to take the Bulls to seven games in a series loaded with drama: John Starks’ clothesline of Scottie Pippen in Game 6; Pippen swooning in the face of Knick harassment; Michael Jordan proving he feared nothing and no one.

Last spring they went six with Starks’ highlight-reel left-handed dunk in Game 2, Jordan’s midnight ride to Atlantic City, Jordan’s 54 points in Game 4, Charles Smith’s four blocked layups in Game 5 and Pippen’s return to prove he really was a star.

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This spring’s threadbare version matches Chicago’s Jordanaires in search of a lead singer with New York’s ambitious bricklayers.

Only six Bulls remain from last season. With John Paxson and Bill Cartwright expected to retire and Horace Grant and Scott Williams to sign elsewhere, it could soon be two.

Riley’s Knicks were never better than that spring of ’92, before they traded Mark Jackson for Smith and before Xavier McDaniel, worried he was out of the picture, fled to Boston.

Now they are klutzes. Their only good shooter is their 7-foot center. Starks has a lot of heart but only one good knee and must depend on his never-trusty jump shot. So far, he is shooting 33%. In ’92, McDaniel averaged 19 points against the Bulls; this spring, Smith is at six.

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It’s a measure of Riley’s popularity, dwarfing anything he had in Los Angeles, that New Yorkers are convinced the Knicks are title-bound, a tall order for this squad even in a down year.

They are favored to come out of the East and would have home-court advantage over Phoenix. But if something bad happens, management is going to be looking at a roster with six players over 30.

And management is once again in flux.

Paramount, which owned Madison Square Garden and hired Riley, has been taken over by Viacom.

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Viacom says it will now sell MSG.

For your nightmare scenario, check this: George Steinbrenner, whose Yankees have a $486-million cable contract with MSG, will reportedly be one of the bidders.

“When I was in Utah,” Knick President Dave Checketts, another Paramount holdover, told the New York Daily News, “a new owner (Larry Miller) came in and wanted to be in the locker room and shoot with the players. At one point, he even thought he could coach it.

“It came to the point where his sons came in and told me everything I was doing wrong. They were 12 and 14 years old. I’m not kidding you.

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“What if we have a new man came in who wants to sit on the bench and tell us how to do things? It’s possible.”

Riley professes indifference “whether one billion-dollar company owns us or another.” But if things go wrong this postseason and if the wrong buyer steps up, Riley could find his power reduced, his players old, his fans angry, the tabloids nibbling on him and his window of opportunity closing as the young Eastern powers grow up.

Riley also says he might keep coaching into his 60s.

Charlotte, anyone?

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SONIC BOOM: WHAT HAPPENED?

In retrospect, what didn’t?

Anyone out there who wrote a Gary Payton-grows-up-story, you should have waited.

Same for anyone who said Shawn Kemp was the next great player.

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Here’s a brief chronology of their series against the Denver Nuggets:

Game 2, halftime: Payton and Ricky Pierce, whose recent return from injury restored the four-man logjam at guard, had to be separated after Payton called Pierce selfish. The SuperSonics went on to win and take a 2-0 lead.

Game 3: The Nuggets won by 17. Payton snapped at everybody afterward in the dressing room, so offensively that mild-mannered Sam Perkins told him to shut up.

Game 4: The Nuggets edged them in overtime.

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Game 5: The SuperSonics--how to phrase it?--gagged.

“We were passive,” Coach George Karl said. “We were scared. We were nervous. We were excuse-oriented. We had bad attitudes.”

They had Payton, who went at it with Pierce again after Game 5. This time Kendall Gill had to break them up.

Two days later: The SuperSonics had their annual breakup meeting. Payton and Kemp didn’t show. Said Karl: “That’s disgusting.”

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Last week, a devastated Karl, apparently mistaking TNT’s Craig Sager for a shrink or someone from 911, said he has “periods when I’m dead.”

“I’m basically embarrassed. Been humbled. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go, who to talk to. I don’t know where to hang out. Basketball is dead.”

Actually, he does have an idea what to do.

“The honeymoon is definitely over,” Karl told SuperSonic reporters. “The hammer is now in my hands. . . .

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“I let winning camouflage my instincts, and because of it I made some mistakes. You’re winning games, Shawn is late for a bus and then for a practice. Gary doesn’t practice hard. What do you do, blow up and bomb them when you’re on an 11-game winning streak?”

Immaturity is an issue, but so is their pressing, open-court game. It’s great for the fans, but if you want to play in postseason, you have to be able to play in the half-court.

ROCKETS GO BOOM TOO

Welcome to the haunted playoffs.

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The Houston Rockets have their own public humiliation to live down after blowing that 20-point fourth-quarter lead to the Phoenix Suns.

The scapegoat: Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, second-guessed for running the same play--to Hakeem Olajuwon in the low post--over and over down the stretch.

In an upset, it wasn’t combustible Vernon Maxwell or clubhouse lawyer Kenny Smith talking, but mild-mannered Robert Horry and Matt Bullard.

Said Horry: “They were keying on one play, and we still kept running it.”

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Said Bullard: “Every day before games, we run about 50 plays. The last 15 minutes of the game, we ran one play, and it was the wrong play. I don’t know why we didn’t run one of the other 49.”

Since the Rockets only scored eight points in the quarter, it’s hard to defend Tomjanovich. He was sucked in by Paul Westphal, who had A.C. Green guarding Olajuwon--but only until the ball arrived, and then he had plenty of defensive help.

When Olajuwon passed the ball out, the other Rockets--how to phrase it?--didn’t respond well under pressure.

It was Tomjanovich who created order from the years of Rocket chaos. However, this is only Tomjanovich’s second postseason as a head coach and he hasn’t been past the second round.

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Additionally, owner Les Alexander has put him in charge of the basketball operation, at which Tomjanovich is a novice. Team doctors knocked down his first initiative, trading Horry for Sean Elliott, who had a liver problem.

Elliott returned to Detroit and finished the season. He would have come in handy last Wednesday in Houston.

If they are looking for scapegoats, make it a team photo.


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