Mutombo could be the X factor

Updated: April 19, 2004, 9:57 PM ET
Associated Press

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- With Tim Thomas doubtful, Allan Houston out and DerMarr Johnson suddenly a key player, the New York Knicks could be in big trouble against the New Jersey Nets in Game 2.

There is one member of the Knicks who is intimately familiar with the opponent and anxious to lend a big hand -- or a wagging finger.

Dikembe Mutombo could make a difference Tuesday night against the team that discarded him during the preseason, but only if coach Lenny Wilkens gives him a bigger role.

"It all depends on the game circumstances," Wilkens said Monday. "He's going to have a role, no question about it. How much of a role? We'll have to wait and see."

Mutombo had his best defensive game of the season Jan. 4 against New Jersey, blocking 10 shots in 42 minutes. But Mutombo's role declined from that day, and he eventually lost his starting job to Nazr Mohammed. Over the final month of the season, most of the backup center minutes went to Vin Baker.

Ninety seconds after checking into Game 1 early in the second quarter, Mutombo blocked a shot by Kerry Kittles to start a 6-0 run that gave the Knicks their last lead. Mutombo did little after that, finishing with three rebounds and three blocks in 14 minutes.

Mutombo is most valuable as a last line of defense if the Knicks' perimeter players get beat off the dribble, but one of his big weaknesses is his unwillingness to move out of the paint to defend centers -- such as Jason Collins and Aaron Williams of the Nets -- who can knock down 17-foot jumpers.

"I would love to play more, and I still want to play more. Lenny has to make that decision," Mutombo said. "Even if I only play for five minutes, I have to go out and try to change the game."

Mutombo spent last season with the Nets, making a big contribution to New Jersey's series-evening Game 2 victory at San Antonio after many questioned why former Nets coach Byron Scott played him for only six minutes in a lopsided Game 1 loss.

The thinking, even among many of the Nets players, was that if a team had a four-time defensive player of the year at its disposal, why not use him?

That same question is now being asked in New York, although the circumstances are different from last June.

"We're not the Spurs, with two 7-foot guys like Tim Duncan and David Robinson. That's why we needed Deke last year," Nets forward Richard Jefferson said. "It's a little different now. We can go small with Rodney Rogers and K-Mart (Kenyon Martin) out there and then what does Deke do? It would be a little tough for him."

Penny Hardaway is expected to start at small forward if Thomas, who bruised his lower back and left ankle when he landed hard after being flagrantly fouled by Collins, cannot play.

Thomas underwent treatment Monday and was sent home before reporters were allowed to speak to the team.

If Hardaway moves into the starting five, the Knicks would have even less depth at shooting guard and small forward. Backup point guard Frank Williams, who drew praise from Wilkens for standing up to Jason Kidd, will likely see time alongside Stephon Marbury in the backcourt.

Johnson, a skinny 6-foot-9 shooting guard who playing alongside Dennis Rodman with the Long Beach Jam before being signed by the Knicks on Feb. 3, could be pressed into duty at small forward.

Houston, sidelined by a knee injury for most of the final six weeks of the regular season, said there's no chance he'll play in Game 2 and he doubts he'll play in the series.

Houston and Thomas are New York's second- and third-leading scorers.

"It's a huge challenge, but it's not impossible," Hardaway said.

While choosing their words carefully, the Knicks have hinted they'll be more physical in Game 2 while also trying to limit the Nets' fast-break opportunities by getting three players back early on defense.

The Knicks' pride seemed to be wounded by the criticism they've taken for not responding in some way to Collins' hard foul.

"I don't know if it was intentional or not, what he did to Tim Thomas, but it left a bad taste in my mouth about this series," Mutombo said. "I think nobody is happy on this team, nobody. We're kind of disappointed to have something like that happen to our friend."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press