Originally created 05/18/99

Wilkens says Knicks series won't be any more physical than expected

MARIETTA, Ga. -- The Atlanta Hawks begin one of the roughest best-of-seven series in their playoff history when the New York Knicks visit the Georgia Dome Tuesday night, but veteran coach Lenny Wilkens isn't worried.

"They are no more physical than any other team, believe me, but they are a good defensive team," quipped Wilkens as his team finished practice Monday morning at Life University.

"Both teams get after it, and both teams cover you. (The series is) going to be (about) shot selection. It's going to be (about) ball movement. It's going to be two good defensive teams, so you've got to move the ball if you want to get a good shot and not let the (shot) clock catch you."

In sum, Wilkens does not anticipate any bench-clearing brawls like the ones New York and Miami made infamous during the 1997 and '98 playoffs. The lowest moment came last year when, amid the chaos of Alonzo Mourning's fight with Larry Johnson, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was sandwiched between the two players and slammed to the floor.

This year's New York-Miami series, which ended in five games Sunday, was a cleanly played affair.

"There's an intensity between those two teams that does not exist between us and another team, New York included," Wilkens said. "There's a lot of history there. But the thing is I've always told my players to keep their heads about them. It's going to be physical, no doubt, but it's going to be a clean, hard-fought series."

Hawks guard Steve Smith realizes the Knicks are hardly a typical No. 8 seed. Last year, for example, the top-seeded Chicago Bulls entered the first round with a 19-game differential in wins and losses over the overmatched New Jersey Nets.

Sunday, when the Knicks became only the second eighth seed in NBA history to win a first-round series, New York and top-seeded Miami were separated by only six games.

"It's pretty much evenly matched across the board," Smith said. "You can tell just by looking at the brackets that no one has a clear path to the finals."

Few observers expect this year's Eastern Conference semifinal will be high scoring.

The Hawks allowed only 83.4 points per game in the shortened, 50-game season and broke the all-time NBA single-season record of 85.6 that Cleveland established two years ago. By giving up 85.4 points per game, the Knicks, who were fourth behind Miami and San Antonio, also broke the mark.

Much has been made of Wilkens' unwillingness to use his bench in the postseason. Point guard Anthony Johnson has occasionally spelled starter Mookie Blaylock, and 16-year veteran center Mark West has given Dikembe Mutombo and Grant Long some minutes to rest.

But the only use Wilkens made of shooting guard Ed Gray and small forward Roshown McLeod came at the end of the blowout games Atlanta had with Detroit.

With Blaylock, Mutombo, Long, Steve Smith and Tyrone Corbin playing an average 45.6 minutes -- out of a possible 48 -- Wilkens suggests this series will be different.

"We'll see," Wilkens said. "It's not a plan; it's game circumstances. Our bench should should be able to give us some quality minutes."

If nothing else, Chris Crawford, a starter for most of the season before being injured in Game 2 of the Detroit series, is back from a slight shoulder separation. Crawford shot the ball with no difficulty at practice Monday and looked as if he were 100 percent.

"As much as (the Knicks) bang you, it's going to be great to have Chris back," said Long, who scored a career playoff-high 26 points. "We need bodies in a big-time way. He's going to help us a lot."

NOTES: Van Gundy said New York's All-Star center, Patrick Ewing, is probable for Game 1. Ewing missed a quarter of the regular season with a bad Achilles tendon and then injured his abdomen against Miami ... Wilkens has not given up on a possible return by Alan Henderson, even though the Hawks' power forward is considered out for the rest of the year with double vision in his left eye. "He's getting another MRI (Monday), so you never know. He's doing everything he's been told to do as far as treating it. Sometimes, with eyes, you can wake up and it's suddenly better."


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