2006-10-20 / Sports

Thomas Hopeful Knicks Can Put It Together In 200-607

By John J. Buro

NEW YORK It's not that exhibition games don't count. The real standings, as far as the 2006-07 Knicks are concerned, will remain at 0-0 until November 1, when they open on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But, in a small, almost benign way, the preseason does matter. This is the start of Isiah Thomas' latest regime, the one which will eventually determine his status for next season.

That is the big picture.

However, there are several components which comprise such a picture.

There is the approach of the coach, who feels New York has enough athleticism to run the floor. Not the way they ran it last season, when there was a different coach, and very little went right. But, not the way the Phoenix Suns do it either, with Steve Nash, a two-time defending MVP, at the point.

That segues into the next and, perhaps, the most important element with regard to how the team is presently constituted. For all the good the new coach can, and will, impart on this squad, the Knicks will be best reflective of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, who are -in no particular order- their 1 and 2 guards.

The tandem, steady 20 point-per-game throughout their respective careers, suffered in the midst of last season's turmoil. Marbury had an ongoing feud with the departed coach. Francis, simply, was denied minutes. And, now, with only one basketball -a new and improved one, at that- on the floor, sharing the rock is one of New York's greatest concern.

There are other relevant issues -such as Jerome James' continuous health ailments and how the defense will respond when it needs a stop- but, in this metropolis, it's always about star power.

Thomas, who is also the President of Basketball Operations, admits to seeing a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn't know when it will, ultimately, shine through, only that it will at some point. And, in his eyes, the journey there will be just as enjoyable. "In the past, whenever I played or coached, I was always excited," he said, flashing his infectious smile before the game. He no longer can watch from the tunnel leading to the locker room, as he did in the past. Now, he is on the floor, observing in plain sight. "I have to make sure that we execute our plays, and that we understand what's coming at us, too."

What was coming to them last Friday evening at Madison Square Garden were the Atlantic Division champion New Jersey Nets, who -at 49-33- were 26 games better than the Knicks a year ago.

It didn't matter that, on this night, Vince Carter and Jason Kidd were in the stands, and not in uniform. The game meant much more to a team seeking a dose of confidence. New Jersey already knows how good it is. And, while this game didn't provide a true litmus test for New York, it was a victory. And they can never have enough of those.

Some things are etched in stone. But, a great deal of the Knicks on-court business is not, such as the two or three roster spots which remain open. Further, Thomas estimates that, prior to this game, only 30-40 percent of their plays were set.

In time, when the players become a little more accountable, life will be a little clearer.

"My job," said the coach, "is to put the players on the floor, and have them reach the level of success they want. "I don't think winning can ever be overstated. It's very difficult to win in this league. I never take it for granted. So, I want every win I can get."

"There are no gifts."

The New York victory may not have mattered -in the standings or anywhere else. It would be ludicrous to think that one preseason game can change the minds of fans, or even cynical writers. But, it was a step in the right direction and enough of those steps will make a difference.

That is what Thomas hopes for. So much, that he is betting his job on it.

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