NEW YORK -- They may not have a defense that is as intense as during the Pat Riley days, but the New York Knicks can still turn it up a couple of notches when they want to. Just ask the Washington Bullets.
The Bullets began what could be the most crucial stretch of games of the season last night, beginning a string of 11 of 15 on the road. But instead of getting off to a good start, Washington felt the defensive clamp of the Knicks in last night's 87-82 loss before a sellout crowd of 19,763.
Maybe a win would have been asking a bit too much of the Bullets -- they hadn't won at Madison Square Garden since 1991.
Washington, which earlier this season ended a 15-game losing streak to the Knicks, has now lost 12 straight in New York. The final score last night was not nearly as close as it appeared, with the Bullets making a run in the final minutes to make it respectable.
"If we could have had two more minutes, maybe that would have helped," Bullets forward Juwan Howard said.
More than likely the Bullets, who have dropped five straight on the road, where they are 6-16, would have faltered against a Knicks defense that limited Washington to just 41.6 percent shooting and a season low in scoring. New York's game plan in part read: never leave Brent Price and Tim Legler alone on the perimeter. The Knicks worked that to near perfection, with Price hitting two of five three-pointers and Legler not even getting a three-point attempt.
"I wasn't getting any daylight at all," said Legler after his fruitless 15-minute stint. "At one point Hubert Davis was in the game when I was in there and he was with me the whole time and he wasn't even thinking about leaving me. Me and Brent like to catch and shoot the three. [Last night] they just weren't there."
The shots weren't there for anyone. Juwan Howard and Calbert Cheaney each had 20 points to lead the Bullets, but Cheaney was the only player on the team to play more than 10 minutes and hit at least half his shots (eight of 14). The Knicks doubled Howard every time he put the ball on the floor and Gheorghe Muresan (11 points, 15 rebounds) every time he caught the ball. New York was credited with nine blocks, five by Ewing.
"We really struggled scoring all night long," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "For one stretch we couldn't score at all. Their defense was too tough."
Washington had closed to within 53-51 after a dunk by Rasheed Wallace with 5:28 left in the third quarter. But the Knicks started calling Ewing's number, and the center responded with six straight points and eight of New York's next 10, with his two free throws with 2:50 left increasing the lead to 63-56.
New York's lead was 70-61 going into the fourth quarter, and that's when Hubert Davis (16 points) and Charlie Ward did their damage. The two reserves combined to score all the points of a 7-0 run to open the quarter, increasing the lead to 77-61.
"Patrick and Hubert Davis, those were the two guys that gave them the edge," Howard said. "Hubert hit a couple of threes [2-for-4 for the game] and Patrick played well as usual."
Well as usual, and once again becoming a more focal point of New York's offense. Earlier this season, the offense centered around point-forward Anthony Mason. But after the Knicks went through a bad stretch, coach Don Nelson has revamped the offense by going to Ewing more. He has responded, leading the team in scoring over the last seven games when he has averaged 27.3 points. He scored 31 points and added 11 rebounds in 38 minutes last night.
"Nelson is starting to milk Patrick, and that is what made them a great team and a championship contender," Howard said. "They have to keep giving the ball to Patrick."
Which would give Knicks fans something to talk about that happened on the floor, instead of off it. On Tuesday, guard John Starks, upset that his grandmother was quoted in a story, went after a New York Post writer in an incident that was videotaped, photographed and played up in every media outlet in the city. Earlier Tuesday, injured forward Anthony Tucker was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer outside a Manhattan nightclub.
"I know criticism comes with the territory and I can handle that," Starks said of his behavior. "But when certain individuals go behind your back and talk to family members . . . my family members are off limits to everybody."
NOTES: New York won the season series over Washington, 3-1. The Knicks have now won 16 of their last 17 games over the Bullets. . . . Washington's bench was outscored, 27-9. . . . The Bullets have lost 10 of their last 12 road games.
Opponent: Atlanta Hawks
Site: The Omni, Atlanta
TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The road hasn't been a friendly place for the Bullets, but they're playing the Hawks at the right time. After winning 10 straight, the Hawks have lost four of their past five, including last night's 101-89 loss in Miami. Atlanta scored only 14 points in the fourth quarter in the loss. The Bullets aren't doing much better, coming in with a two-game losing streak and five straight defeats on the road.