It’s the final minute, the playoff game is tied, and the Knicks’ split personality comes into high resolution: Who gets the last shot, Patrick Ewing or Someone Else? Audible groans rise at the Garden when option No. 1 unfolds and the Big Fella begins his ponderous pivot. The anguish is based more on style than on stats, since Ewing has repeatedly delivered big baskets, but Knicks fans beg for something more creative, more fluid, more Spree.
“I don’t understand Knick fans,” says Dr. Jack Ramsay, who has the objective expertise – he coached Portland to an NBA championship and now analyzes the Knicks for ESPN – to dissect the down-to-the-wire dissent. “They pride themselves on being knowledgeable basketball fans, but why they don’t embrace Ewing for what he’s done over his career is beyond me.”
Yet Ramsay agrees that with Latrell Sprewell, the Knicks are better equipped in the final seconds than they’ve ever been. “Ewing doesn’t always turn and take that baseline jumper,” Ramsay says. “He can also face his defender and drive through the lane. And he’s become a better passer, so if he’s doubled, he’ll get the ball out, and they’ll swing it to the open shooter. The downside of the Ewing option is he’s now a half-step slower, and maybe more predictable than Sprewell. Sprewell is dynamite. I don’t know how you stop him from taking the ball to the basket. He can finish with either hand, he has excellent agility once he gets to the basket area, he’s unselfish, and he’s an excellent decision-maker. What determines which play they use? The matchups and whichever guy has a better game going.”
But Van Gundy’s decision seems more freighted – a choice between his loyalty to the Knicks’ stolid past and a gamble on their fitfully electric present. “Sitting there as Jeff picks the play,” Sprewell says of the Knicks’ last timeout in game two against Toronto, with 25.6 seconds left and the Knicks down one, “you almost do and don’t want the ball – because you don’t want to be scrutinized if you miss the shot.” Here is how Van Gundy’s blue Sharpie draws the Ewing isolation and “Cross 3,” the play on which Sprewell beat the Raptors.