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KNICKS ARE PISTON BAD BOYS MINUS AN OFFENSE

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Once it was nothing more than a harmless exaggeration to describe an NBA player as "a warrior." Increasingly, though, it's become a necessity. We have the Knicks to thank for that.

"We want to win it the ugly way," New York's Anthony Mason said.Assuming that's true, they're an unqualified success. And as long as their playoff run continues, the pro game will be less and less about offense and more and more about defense. Self-defense, that is.

It's not just the skirmishes and free-for-alls that have erupted, though there have been enough of those. It's the risk a player has to accept every time he drives the lane, or the amount of pushing, shoving and rabbit-punching he is willing to fight through just for a clear look at the basket. As a result, the referees have become as well known - and as crucial to the outcome - as anybody on the floor.

Including Sunday night's 94-90 win over Indiana in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, the Knicks have survived two seven-game series and produced more offensive officiating than offensive basketball.

Anybody piecing together a highlight film of the former could go right to the call against Chicago's Scottie Pippen that decided Game 5, or the flagrant foul whistled on Indiana's Reggie Miller that robbed the Pacers of their last chance Sunday. Try making a highlight film of the latter and the only clip worth including was Miller lighting up Madison Square Garden with 25 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday.

It used to be that you could count on a few of those moments in nearly every series. No more. Put the best face you can on these Knicks - a leering smile would do nicely - and what you have are the Detroit Piston Bad Boys without an offense.

Those Pistons at least had Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas slashing to the basket, or Vinnie Johnson dropping bombs from downtown to break the monotony. But only Patrick Ewing can reliably pile up numbers for New York and watching him wrestle three defenders in the paint to throw up that little jumper every time down the floor must be an acquired taste.

Maybe a tough town needs a tough team. Even so, the Knicks have managed to do something almost no one outside the metropolitan area thought possible. They've given New York a worse reputation than it deserves. And they're killing the game in the bargain.

"It was a harrowing experience," Knicks coach Pat Riley said after the win. Presumably, he was talking about his team at the time, though it turns out he could have been speaking for many of us.

Now we get to see whether the Knicks can beat up and gum up yet a third team - the Houston Rockets - by reducing what is supposed to be a game of grace and speed and athletic ability to just so much bump and grind. With countless interruptions for whistles, of course.

Whatever else it does, success spawns imitations. You won't hear kids on the sandlots this summer taking their hacks at the baseball and yelling "Michael Jordan" to help it get through the infield. But out on the playgrounds already, some of those same kids are hoisting treys and yelling "John Starks" to help the ball find the bottom of the net.

If the only thing little hoopheads across the land want to do is shoot like Gotham's maddest-baddest boy, no problem. But if they - or even worse, their elders - take this role-modeling bit any further, the game of the `90's will be taking a big step backward.

"Nothing should take away from their win," Pacers coach Larry Brown said. "Nothing I say is meant to do that."

In fact, Brown said nothing critical of the Knicks - before or after that statement. The reason why is that he is in the process of building a team very much like theirs. Everybody in the Eastern Conference either is or will be doing the same very soon.

Maybe the artist that lurks in every NBA coach would like to have a team that plays with brilliance on both ends of the court. But the proven talents that allow a team to do that - Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird - are either gone or not yet developed.

Besides, the pragmatist that lurks in every coach understands that owners don't judge them on artistic merit. They have to win one way or the other. And right now, unfortunately, it is the other - a smothering defense that, legal and otherwise, is making this anything but a fan-tastic game.