There was something fitting about Latrell Sprewell being in attendance in Milwaukee on Sunday as the Knicks slugged through yet another troubling loss. Twelve years ago, it was Sprewell who was the high scoring star trying to fit into a new team that already had focal-point scorers in Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing. The Knicks went through a very similar situation during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
Sprewell was acquired right after the NBA lockout ended and there wasn't much of a training camp to get everyone acclimated, especially when it came to figuring out how to work Sprewell and Houston in the same offense. There was even less time because Sprewell missed 13 of the 50 games because of a heel injury. Marcus Camby was a new addition that year, too, and it took time for him to earn a role -- and the confidence of Jeff Van Gundy.
With all of the talent on that roster -- Sprewell, Houston, Ewing, Camby, Larry Johnson and Kurt Thomas -- the Knicks lost four straight in mid-April and were mired at 21-21 with just eight games left in the season. And after a blowout loss in Indiana on May 2 -- when Chris Mullin (4-for-4 from three-point range) was left open way too many times (wait . . . even those Knicks had inexcusable defensive breakdowns?) -- the Knicks still hadn't yet clinched a playoff berth with two games left in the season.
It finally got done the next day, with a win over the Celtics in the second-to-last game of the season. The Knicks needed six wins in their final eight games just to snag the eighth and final berth in the East.
"We only played 50 games and people don't realize that there were a lot of new faces on the team," Kurt Thomas told author Dennis D'Agostino in the wonderful "Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks."
"Myself, Marcus, Sprewell. It took time for all of us to gel together. That year was up and down, up and down. We'd in a few games, we'd lose a few games. For some reason, we couldn't place our finger on what was going on.
"But then, right before the end of the season, when we were fighting for the eighth playoff spot, we finally started getting it together and played great basketball. And that just comes from the veterans on the team: Patrick Ewing, Chris Dudley, Larry Johnson and all the vetterans. They just kept us all together and we played inspired basketball."
Sprewell offered a Yogi-ism when recalling that playoff push: "Once we got in, anything could happen. And that's exactly what happened."
The current team, even with five losses in the last six games, seems to have a similar quiet confidence about them. When you ask the players privately if there is any doubt, even the most candid insist the group truly believes they'll get it figured out.
"We're a ways away from where we need to be," Chauncey Billups said. "We have a ways to go on both ends, getting familiar . . . We're just fighting our way through and honestly I think we're getting better. Even though you can't tell with the wins, we're losing games, but I feel like we're inching and getting better every single time. Our defense is getting better, that's the one thing that is probably going to be our Achilles Heel."
That's what obviously separates this group from the '99 team: defense. That team had a defensive taskmaster in Van Gundy and once Camby emerged, he was a critical factor in protecting the rim, especially with Ewing in rough shape most of the season (and eventually lost to an Achilles injury in the postseason). But the '99 team, despite plenty of scorers, didn't put up a lot of points. They were, however, ridiculously clutch.
This is in no means to suggest the current Knicks can match the improbable run that '99 team went on that spring. That team was far more complete, much deeper and much older. And this team doesn't have a Camby, which is one of its greatest issues.
The point is that it takes time and struggle to get a team working as a cohesive unit that not only knows and trusts the system, but knows and trusts each other, too. They went through it at the start of the season, but the pressure is even higher now because of the star-studded lineup with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony that attracts a lot more attention.
"There's a lot of high stakes right now, as you've seen, people are coming to get ya," Mike D'Antoni said of this cramming session the team has endured since the trade on Feb. 22. "It's not bad, I mean, that's just the way it is. We're on a big stage and we're going through practices on an open court. And sometimes it doesn't [look] good.
"I guess the bottom line is, I'm not worried about it. We're going to talk about it and get it right and guys are still hanging in there and we'll solve the problem. There are going to be frustrations that boil over some, but they know, and we all know, we're all in the same boat, how to get the job done and we're just going to try to get it done."