As the 21-point lead gradually evaporated, the New York Knicks had to think of other meltdowns they've experienced in this see-saw NBA season.
This would have been a major one against the Los Angeles Clippers, winless this month and buried at the bottom of the Pacific Division with the worst record in the league.
The Clippers went on a 13-0 run to cut the lead to four points before a string of seven straight free throws by Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell rescued the Knicks and preserved an 87-76 victory Monday.
"I thought we played well today," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "They made ... 3s and it was right back into the game. The difference in this league is very small, particularly when we are down men."
The Knicks were without starting point guard Charlie Ward and swing man Marcus Camby. That forced Kurt Thomas into a starting role and he responded with 16 points. Houston led the Knicks with 24, Sprewell had 16 and Patrick Ewing scored 15 and grabbed 12 rebounds.
"They made some shots and our bench took a couple of possessions off, and that is all that has to happen to make it a close game," he said.
Trailing 76-57, LA went on the run that included two 3-pointers by rookie Lamar Odom and one each by Troy Hudson and Tyrone Nesby. That narrowed the Knicks lead to 80-76 before the stream of New York foul shots in the final two minutes put the game away.
"We've had trouble this year with finishing games," said Sprewell, who led the Knicks with nine assists. "We seem to let teams climb back in. That was the case today. This time we were able to hold them off. Against the good teams, when we let that happen, that's just asking for trouble."
Jim Todd, who replaced Chris Ford as the Clippers coach Feb. 3, saw some hopeful signs for his team, the youngest in the NBA.
"We have had only three or four practices since we took over, but with every practice I think we have gotten a little better and put in more effort," he said. "We still have a long way to go. As a team, we need to keep our heads up and they have been."
As the Clippers threatened, it was reminiscent of the first meeting this season between the teams when Los Angeles beat New York 100-95 Nov. 23. That win was the centerpiece of the season for a team with only 11 victories.
Odom and Maurice Taylor led the Clippers with 14 apiece.
It was a disappointing homecoming for Odom, who grew up in New York and was playing for the first time in Madison Square Garden.
"I just wish it could have been a win," he said. "We don't let the game come to us. That's what we have to learn."
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