After watching old tapes of Magic vs. Bird for about three hours Sunday morning to remind myself of what the NBA Finals ought to look like, I've decided that if Earvin Johnson was running the point for the San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan would average 45 points a game against the New York Knicks.

This NBA season, right up through the championship series, continues to be a theatrical hoot on and off the court.

We might as well start with Duncan vs. the Knicks. Let's pose this question: If Larry Johnson were two inches taller than he really is (6 feet 5 1/4) and his right knee were perfectly healthy, would you assign him to guard the 7-foot Duncan, who is very likely the best low-post player since Kevin McHale?

The correct answer should be: Not on your life. So would you assign, from the beginning of the game, a 6-5 1/4 player with one healthy leg to guard the best big man in the game?

This is a trick question, right? No, that's Jeff Van Gundy's strategy, although the Knicks hinted at possible lineup changes on the eve of Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.

I'm sorry, I didn't want to start in on Van Gundy again, since I've been keeping an evil eye on him since Day 1 this season when it was apparent he didn't want Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell on his team. But I can't help it. Friday night made me do it. L.J. on Duncan.

See, there's some stuff professional coaches can say and you just have to live with it. If an offensive line coach in football tells you his guy just can't take the proper angle to stop the run in a two-gap blocking scheme, you just shrug your shoulders and say, "I see your point, coach." But basketball is right out there in the open. It is what it is. There's been one 6-7 dude in the history of basketball who could, in the prime of his career while 100 percent healthy, successfully guard Duncan and his name is Wes Unseld. That's it, end of list.

For four weeks I've been asking current players, former players and former coaches about the state of the game and I've been shocked at how often they've mentioned today's coaches and rolled their eyes.

And it's not just Van Gundy. If you're San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, you've got the single best big man in the game and the opposing coach has some limping midget guarding your guy. What do you do?

You milk your big guy until the other team changes the matchup, right? Apparently not. The Spurs pass it around like basketball is some socialist exercise. I watch the Lakers and Celtics re-runs on Classic Sports and I keep envisioning Magic screaming at Duncan to catch the ball and shoot until L.J.'s tongue is dragging the floor.

Whether we're sitting on press row, in front of the living room TV or in a sports bar, whether we're a reporter, fan, or Hall of Famer, we're all pretty much wondering one thing: Do the Knicks have a chance here to even win one game against a Spurs team that has won an NBA-record 12 straight playoff games?

Maybe. Sorry, columnists are supposed to be definitive in their know-it-all-ism but since I have no influence with Van Gundy, that's the best I can come up with. Usually, it's about nine minutes into the game before Van Gundy has his best five players on the court: Sprewell, Camby, Allan Houston, Chris Childs and (because Johnson is injured and playing against people who are too tall) 6-9 Kurt Thomas.

The Knicks can indeed win at least one game in New York if those guys are on the court together for long stretches. If Van Gundy is a slave to his system of rotation instead of feeling the urgency of the situation, the Knicks are going down in a heap again. If Chris Dudley is healthy enough to play against David Robinson (or if L.J. is healthy enough to guard Sean Elliott) and if Camby can stay out of foul trouble and play nose-to-nose against Duncan, we could actually see some evenly played basketball. Remember, the best two athletes on the court are Sprewell and Camby.

I was confused the other night when Van Gundy said he didn't want Jaren Jackson to beat him. Isn't the idea to make somebody other than the opposing team's best player beat you? I thought the idea was to cover Michael Jordan so tightly he'd have to pass to Steve Kerr, and then make Kerr beat you?

I guess I've got it all wrong, though, because it appears that Van Gundy has at least one suitor.

Is it just a coincidence that the New Jersey Nets haven't hired a new coach yet? Or do we think the Nets are just waiting for this series to end so they can try and get at Van Gundy. And if you're Van Gundy, do you return to New York and try to duplicate a fairy-tale season, or do you cross the river and stick it to your old boss, Dave Checketts, who only a few weeks ago was whispering sweet somethings in Phil Jackson's ear? How big a coup would it be for the Nets to steal the Knicks' coach, and leave the Knicks without a coach after the draft, in the middle of July?

Juicy isn't it? It's just too bad the stuff happening on the court isn't nearly as compelling.