Today wasn't the day to be exclusively concerned with X's and O's, though the New York Knicks do have their strategic concerns. Today, first and foremost, was a mental health day for the Knicks. Coach Jeff Van Gundy worked to get his team regrouped and mentally prepared to beat the San Antonio Spurs here in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Friday night and extend the season one more game.

The Knicks, trailing three games to one in this best-of-seven championship series, are well aware that no team has ever overcome such a deficit to win the title.

"They're only bound by what they think can't be done," Van Gundy told reporters this morning at Madison Square Garden. "No eighth seed [had] ever made it to the Finals either. So history doesn't have to hamper us. Can we win one home game? That's the only question: `Can we win one home game?' Do we really in our heart of hearts want to go back to San Antonio [for Sunday's Game 6, and Tuesday's Game 7, if necessary]?

"Today is about our mental state. At the moment of truth, if you don't really believe you can do this, there is going to be a little bit of give-in. I don't want there to be give-in because I believe we can do this."

The possibility does exist, however, that the Knicks could play their best game of the series and still not win Game 5. When New York won Game 3 here Monday night, the Spurs stayed close even though Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and Mario Elie -- all starters -- played poorly.

But in San Antonio's 96-89 Game 4 victory, all five Spurs starters played well. And one could make the case that the Knicks played very well, too, even though San Antonio's David Robinson and Tim Duncan dominated the game defensively and on the boards late in the second half after the Knicks had cut a 13-point deficit to two points.

Van Gundy ripped into his team for the way it did not defend the Spurs' screen-and-roll, particularly the way Johnson cruised into the lane to set up four of his six shots from the field, and most of his 10 assists. Van Gundy also said, "You can't get outrebounded by 15 [in the second half] and win."

But he also added, "You can only do so much with greatness. And Duncan and Robinson have greatness."

Asked if he had ever been confronted with a bigger mountain to climb, Van Gundy smiled and said, "Mount Jordan was always the toughest to climb. But Mount Duncan and Mount Robinson are pretty tough, too. . . . If you just look at the totality of it, you might be overcome with the odds of achieving it."

The Spurs, meanwhile, simply were trying to continue what they have done in building a 14-2 record in these playoffs. Coach Gregg Popovich, sensing that Johnson was itching to deliver a message, gave the stage to his point guard following Game 4.

"Avery took over and put everybody in the fear of their lives," Popovich said. "Literally, if they didn't understand the importance of this and how it could seep into you, that you [could] start feeling like you've arrived, you've done it. But you haven't done a thing until you win number four. If you don't keep that attitude, you'll be playing a Game 7."

CAPTION: The long face from Latrell Sprewell may have to do with the fact that the Knicks are on the verge of being eliminated from NBA Finals by the Spurs.