Just a few points can help NBA steady its rocky ship


NEW YORK -- So, how will the Knicks top the Rangers?

Or, more to the point, how will the NBA top the NHL?

Bet you never thought you'd hear that question, but hey, when fans riot in Vancouver and not New York, the world is upside down.

The NHL isn't about to wrestle supremacy from the NBA, but only in the post-Jordan era could the Stanley Cup playoffs be considered a greater artistic success.

Hakeem Olajuwon is the only man who can save these NBA Finals. He delivered a monster performance last night, but typical of this bizarre postseason, it wasn't enough.

Olajuwon scored 14 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, but the Knicks held on for a 91-82 victory that tied the series at two games each.

This thing might actually turn dramatic, if Patrick Ewing ever wakes up. Ewing shot 8-for-28 last night, failed to reach the free-throw line until the fourth quarter, then fouled out.

The Knicks were saved by Charles Oakley, who scored 16 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, and by guards John Starks and Derek Harper, who combined for 41 points on 13-for-26 shooting.

Ewing suddenly thinks he's Reggie Miller on the perimeter. The difference is, Miller makes his shots. In the Finals, Ewing is shooting 30.3 percent.

He ventured inside briefly in the final period, but before that he went nine quarters without attempting a free throw. How is that possible? How is any of this?

The Rockets scored only two points in the first 7:45, but even down 17-2, they weren't out of it. The Knicks scored only two points in the next 6:33, and once again it was a game.

Ugly, ugly, ugly.

The NBA transformed itself into the most popular league in the world by marketing its star power -- Magic and Bird, Jordan and Isiah.

Now, for the first time since 1979, none of those players is in The Finals. Meanwhile, younger stars such as Shaquille O'Neal seem as obsessed with their commercial portfolios as NBA titles.

O'Neal, at least, is worth going to see -- unlike, say, Derrick Coleman. But clearly, this is a time of transition, a time to shift the focus back to the product.

Which, of course, is the whole problem.

These could be the first Finals since 1954 in which neither team scores 100 points in a game. Game 1 gave us record lows for combined point totals for both a half (63) and fourth quarter (28).

Everyone blames the Knicks, but they're an easy target. Heck, if the Knicks had a pure shooter like Miller, they'd be considered a truly great team, a worthy heir to Jordan's Bulls.

The league's problems run deeper. The referees keep making disputed calls in the final minutes. And the brawl-filled early rounds made the Stanley Cup playoffs look downright genteel.

Is this the NBA, or the Big East?

None of this is difficult to fix. Establish stiffer penalties for fighting. Demand more consistency from the refs. And change the rules to allow for more scoring.

Maryland coach Gary Williams has two ideas to help with the latter -- increasing the shot clock from 24 to 30 seconds, and lifting the ban on zone defenses, which no one adheres to, anyway.

"Right now, the problem is that you're passing against token man-to-man pressure in the backcourt," Williams said yesterday. "That takes eight seconds off the clock, and leaves you only 15-16 seconds to run your offense.

"As good as these guys defend, that's not enough time. It's the same every time down the court -- throw into the big guy, let them double-team, then rotate the ball to the open man.

"You usually wind up taking a tough jump shot with a defender flying at you. That's why the scores are so low."

The 24-second clock and illegal-defense rules were established to help boost scoring, but suddenly they're having the opposite effect.

As Williams sees it, adding six seconds to the shot clock would enable teams to make one or two more passes, increasing the chances for a better shot.

As for zone defenses, the threat of getting burned by a quality three-point shooter would discourage most teams from junking their man-to-man.

The more creative the defense, the more inventive the offense. And please, not a word on how the top players would be suffocated. As it is, the Knicks are double- and triple-teaming Olajuwon.

This isn't a crisis: Glenn Robinson, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd represent the next wave of stars, and the NBA is too smart to allow its game to deteriorate like major-league baseball's.

Still, the most electric moment last night might have been when Rangers captain Mark Messier made a surprise appearance at halftime with the Stanley Cup.

And when a certified hoop freak like Williams admits to watching Game 7 of the Cup finals, you know something strange is happening.

Consider the NBA forewarned.

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