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Once Again, Underdog Knicks Are Feeling the Heat

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

For all of the 1990s, first with Pat Riley and now against him, the Knicks have been one of those heartbreak teams. In the playoffs, early or late, they come up short. Michael Jordan has done it to them. Sometimes they have done it to themselves. There was even the night when Riley helped do it to his own team, leaving John Starks out there to shoot what felt like 2-for-100 against the Rockets in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Sometimes it is a Patrick Ewing finger roll that comes up short in another Game 7, against the Pacers. Or a Starks shot, a shot to win the title in Game 6 against the Rockets in ’94, that never makes it to the basket. Sometimes there is a fight in Miami and the Knicks leave the bench and Riley’s team beats them before Jordan gets another chance.

Last year, one more Game 7, the heartbreak place for the Knicks is Miami Arena. Now they are back. They are short-handed again, not because of suspensions this time, but because the doctors still won’t let Ewing play, saying his right wrist isn’t ready even though Ewing says that it is. There always seems to be some kind of odds against. You think back over all the years, ever since Riley, and you can’t think of a single easy game, April or May or June. There won’t be any this weekend. But the Knicks need to get at least one, or the way they played the Heat during the regular season won’t matter even a little bit.

“We are an underdog with a chance,” Jeff Van Gundy says.

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That is exactly what they are, even if the season series was 2-2, and should have been 3-1 for the Knicks, who played all four of those games without Ewing. Riley’s team is at full strength, even if someone who fancies himself such a cracker-jack personnel guy--as Riley sure does--was rock-headed enough to give Ike Austin away in a trade. Riley’s team is 55 wins to the Knicks’ 43. It is favored to win; it is supposed to win without Ewing on the floor. It should win.

But something never changes with the Knicks, no matter who is coaching them: They are a very tough out. This time they may be the toughest out in the whole first round. So once again, after the heartbreak decade, they make us watch, wondering if we will see the best in them against Miami, or the worst.

The best possible season without Ewing is the one the Knicks start playing tonight in Miami, Arena, against Riley, against Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway and P.J. Brown. and the Heat. After all the bleak forecasts after Ewing went down, this is all the season the Knicks or their fans could ever want: Knicks-Heat, Round II.

“You wanted ugly?” Riley said. the other day. “You got it.”

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No, he is the one who wants the kind of bare-knuckle ball we will see from both teams. Because he coached it with the Knicks and now coaches it with the Heat. He made it work with the Knicks and has made it work in Miami, even if he is moving away from an NBA title instead of moving closer to one. He is some coach. And some phony. As always, he makes the style of play we will see in this series seem as if it should be somebody else’s problem. Shake hands with Riley before a playoff series like this and count your fingers.

His team looked tired at the end of the regular season, as if he had gone to the whip too often. But he gets Jamal Mashburn back. Hardaway has gotten five days to rest. Riley has always been tremendous framing a short series like this, in New York and Miami. But he knows what everybody knows: If all the players are on the court last year, his team is out in six games. He saw how Knicks vs. Heat has played out this year, even with Ewing very much seat-belted to the bench, in street clothes.

He talks a good game because he is scared. Three years into his program in Miami, he knows he won’t come up much of a genius if he is three losses to the Knicks and out.

Three years ago this spring, he quit on the Knicks. He quit for money, and also gave up on these players. He thought he could do better, in all ways, in Miami. He had seen enough heartbreak with the Knicks. Now he goes up against them. An underdog team with a great chance. Who knows? Maybe Riley finds out that some of that heartbreak has followed him to Miami. Maybe the Knicks dish some of it out this time.

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