Some deja vu for poor Lenny

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

It's a different town, a different team, different players but be certain of one thing: you've seen this Lenny Wilkens disaster movie before.

The lingering image is of Wilkens twisting to and fro in the wind, his job hanging by a thread. At 67, he is a Hall of Famer as both a coach and a player, an NBA great whose classy image is taking another unnecessary beating.

For a half-season in Toronto two years ago, we watched the Wilkens death march and now it's happening again in New York.

Wilkens' job security --or lack of it -- has been a common thread running through the entire Knicks' season, right from the first day of training camp, much the way it was during his last year in Toronto.

Given the embarrassing state of the NBA Titanic Division, the mediocre Knicks have been able to maintain a competitive facade. They finished December three games over .500 at 16-13, in first place. But now they've lost eight of nine to start 2005 and are looking like they lack the ability to tread water even among this scruffy company.

Poor Lenny. Before the Knicks left New York on Tuesday, he delivered a rare impasssioned speech to his team, asking them to persevere, to fight through the adversity.

"The coach said a lot," said Allan Houston. "He got his point across."

But, in the end last night, neither Wilkens nor his players had an answer for the Raptors and their long-range shooting in the dying moments. Toronto turned a tense, tight ballgame into a runaway, winners by 17 points.

Many of the same criticisms that marked Wilkens' declining years here have followed him to Manhattan: strategic brainlock, especially late in games; poor game preparation; and an inability to get the attention of his players.

He's also had the same excuses in New York as he had in Toronto: multiple injuries to key players.

But now many of the injured Knicks are coming back on line and, while Knicks' GM Isiah Thomas has expressed full support for his coach, his penchant for meddling is far too entrenched for him to let this current malaise linger.

This being New York, there is no shortage of rumoured replacements. Phil Jackson and Larry Brown, who will probably be available after fulfilling his obligation to the Pistons at year's end, are two prominent potential Wilkens successors. So is Thomas himself, though he rejects that scenario for public consumption.

Last night was Wilkens' 2,486th gaamee as an NBA coach and he has two years left and the Knicks are on the hook for $10 million in salary.

He is not at war with his players. They know where the fault lies.

"It comes down to the players," said Kurt Thomas. "The bottom line is it comes down to the players."

"If you had your full team and things are going bad, you could put most of the blame on the coach," Stephon Marbury told New York reporters on Tuesday. "You're not playing with your full team. That's not fair to the coach to basically say 'Lenny Wilkens, he doesn't know what he's doing. He's not getting the most out of his team' That's not right and that's not fair. Right now, we took a step backward to go forward."

Last night, the Knicks played with energy on defence but at crunch time they wilted like yesterday's lettuce. Or was it simply the will of the Raptors that did them in?

With 5:27 left in the game, Knicks trailed by a point. A little over a minute later, they were down seven. Ninety seconds after that, the Toronto lead was a dozen and it just degenerated from there.

And Wilkens, with that familiar bewildered look on his face, was left to mull over another nail in his coaching coffin.

How sad. How familiar.


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