THE OPTIMIST: "We will be a good team. I guarantee it," Coach John MacLeod keeps saying as his Knickerbockers keep struggling. How soon? "No idea," he said. After MacLeod's first month (6-7) in New York, the team appears worse than when he took over. Still, the veteran coach professes to be undaunted. "It's going to take awhile," he said. How can he remain positive after the Knicks (12-15) had such a poor month during the soft part of the schedule? "Because we have good people."

The Knicks get an opportunity tonight to measure their progress. They face the Celtics at Boston Garden, where the Knicks left riding an emotional wave last time in. It was last May when the Knicks, under Stu Jackson, came back from an 0-2 series deficit in the first round of the playoffs to win three straight. But they return with considerably less confidence. STEPPIN' OUT: Chicago's John Paxson is the only player in the league to have made at least half his three-point shots, among those with enough attempts to qualify for the leader list. He is 18 of 35, for 51.4 percent. STATS: Boston leads the league in shooting percentage (.533) and shooting defense (.444). . . . New Jersey is last in shooting percentage (.436) and Denver is decidedly last in shooting defense (.532). Only one other team -- Charlotte, .510 -- has allowed its opponents to make half their shots. . . . The scoring race is so close that Charles Barkley (30.4), Bernard King (30.2) and Michael Jordan (30.1) all held the lead at some point last week.