2007-03-09 / Sports

The Return Of "Starbury" Gives Knicks Needed Playoff Lifeline

By John J. Buro

By John J. Buro

He is 30 now, which seems to matter to people who follow the New York Knicks. Perhaps, it isn't so much about the birth certificate, but rather the aches and pains that have reminded Stephon Marbury that the clock is ticking.

As a young man, growing up in a Coney Island playground, Marbury was destined for stardom. In 1995, he was named National High School Player of the Year by Parade Magazine, and led Abraham Lincoln High School to a PSAL championship -on the very Madison Square Garden floor that would become home nine years later.

There was a one-year stint at Georgia Tech, where he averaged 18.9 points per game and 4.5 assists, and was the Rookie of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. There was also a berth on the All-ACC First Team, which enabled him to become just the fifth freshman to be selected. And, again, he experienced victory, as his 26 points paced the Yellow Jackets to the conference title against Tim Duncan's Wake Forest squad.

Then, it was so easy for him. The personal accolades were n line with team glory. It is a popular belief that Marbury was the best guard in the 1996 NBA Draft; he thought so, as well. But, it was Georgetown's Allen Iverson who was taken first. Somewhere, along the way, Marbury had slipped to fourth.

Immediately, that night provided a rude awakening.

The Milwaukee Bucks, who owned the No. 4 pick, were more tempted by what the Minnesota Timberwolves offered - the rights to Ray Allen and a First Round choice. In 1999, a three-way deal sent Marbury to New Jersey. He landed in Phoenix two years later; in a twist of fate, the swap moved Jason Kidd - erstwhile Knick killer- to the Eastern Conference.

It took exactly two weeks for Isiah Thomas, who was annointed President of Basketball Operations in December 22, 2003, to iron out the nine-player trade which brought Marbury back home.

As Thomas -a Hall-of-Fame guard with the Detroit Pistons- settled into his new role, the guard with the Hall-of-Fame talent had already paraded past four coaches, and had included a very nasty dispute with Larry Brown that was contested in the periodicals. Then, Thomas was issued a one-year ultimatum by James Dolan, the Garden boss, over the summer, and was expected to make 'evident progress.'

When the Knicks faltered early -particularly at the Garden, where they dropped 10 of their first 14, Marbury was the instant fall guy. He is their most able player, and their most expensive, and the mere sight of a towel draped over his cranium did not resonate well with the fans.

Arguably, the turning point of both his season occurred on the evening of December 15. Marbury, a career 20.2 scorer who had tallied as many just once in the 25 previous games, broke through for 31 points against the Denver Nuggets.

However, the final score, which resulted in a Denver victory, and dropped the Knicks to 9-17, was not nearly as important as what developed afterward. The contest, remembered more for the brawl which further embarrassed the NBA, drew fines and suspensions totaling $1,000,000 and 47 games.

But, as the Knicks have steadily improved - at press time, they are 28-33 and on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff race-, it is clear that Marbury's recent play has made a huge difference.

"Stephon Marbury has allowed his younger teammates to take centerstage," said Gus Johnson, who is in his 10 th season as the team's radio voice. "He has deferred to Jamal Crawford, and Eddy Curry, and David Lee, and, as the point guard, has done a terrific job in getting them involved early."

And has still found opportunities for his shot.

In the 34 games he has played since the melee, [remarkably, his turf toe and tendinitis ailments have only cost him one game] Marbury has reached 20 points on 15 occasions, including the last six. His scoring average, which lingered below 11 points before the game against the Nuggets, has blossomed to 14.7. Consequently, New York has won 19 of those games.

"In my first two or three years," said Allen, who averages 26.5 points for the Seattle SuperSonics, "I didn't think tendinitis was a big deal. But, it has a way of shutting down the body. And, when one side shuts down, there is a tendency to overcompensate."

Entering Tuesday's contest against Seattle, the Knicks have won seven consecutive games at the Garden. Their last loss on this court was January 24, to the Phoenix Suns; that was the one game Marbury missed. So, while they are still 19 games away from tying the mark, set in 1988-89, for consecutive home victories, New York has turned it around following the aforementioned 4-10 start. They have won 13 of 16 and, at 17-13 overall, own the conference's ninth-best record.

For Marbury, with a grand total of 18 postseason games over ten seasons, such success has been a revelation. Last season, under Brown, he was supposed to have teamed with Steve Francis, acquired from the Orlando Magic in February. But, the two former All-Stars were totally out of sync. This season, with Thomas at the helm and Francis - who has only appeared in 10 games since December 23- on the Inactive List with tendinitis in his right knee- Marbury was usually teamed with Crawford.

Now, Crawford is presumably done for the regular season with a stress fracture in his right ankle, and Francis has returned. Last Saturday, in Atlanta, the tandem combined for 64 points during a thrilling 104-100 overtime win; down the stretch, Marbury - who scored 38, with nine assists, five rebounds, five steals and just one turnover in 51 minutes- and Francis [a season-high 26, six boards, three assists in 41 minutes] scored 33 of the Knicks' last 35 points.

The clock continues to tick on Marbury. The aches and pains are reminders of his years in this league. With the hope that there are better days still ahead.

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