Home Game No. 35 of yet another losing season -- one more loss from officially clinching the ninth straight --and there was the Garden on a Monday night sold out and rocking as if there was something still to play for this year.

Yes, sold out. 19,763. It was the 21st sellout of 35 home games so far and, more amazingly, the sixth in the last seven games, all of which were when it was quite clear the Knicks weren't going to be anywhere near a playoff race once again.

So, then, why do these people still come?

This was the very next game after the most unsightly of the losses this season (and there are several contenders): Saturday by 20 to the lowly Nets, in yet another game the home team seemed to collectively quit in the determination category.

So, then, why do these people still care?

In Indiana, where basketball is just as much a religion to those people as it is here in the self-proclaimed mecca, they've pretty much stopped showing up. They've stopped paying attention. And that team at least has a lottery pick and a legitimate shot at John Wall.

What they have here at the Garden in an amazing phenomenon, one that is unquestionably unique to this place, this team and these fans. It is something you can't manufacture with pre-recorded sound effects and cheesy crowd meters. It is something you can't duplicate.

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But it is something that might be the most valuable asset the Knicks can boast when they attempt to lure high-end free agents this summer. Consider the ridiculous amount of energy in the building for a meaningless game for a team playing out the string. Now try to imagine it for a playoff game.

Especially if it's the first playoff game in seven years.

It is something Allan Houston mentioned to me when we talked before this win over the Hawks, pretty much meaningless in the big picture but with a thrilling ending. Houston had a gleam in his eye when he looked out across the court and recalled the roars from those playoff wars and how being a seventh seed or an eighth seed just never seemed to matter once the series made it's way here.

Why do these people care so much?

You would think someone would be curious enough to want to find out.

* * *

* - Everyone in the building expected Jamal Crawford to take that shot at the end of the game. We've seen him do it so many times before. But it was a heck of a pass for what looked to be an easy dunk for Smith, until Wilson Chandler met him at the rim for a sensational defensive play.

"It was all instinct," Chandler said with a sheepish grin, knowing that if he had a second to process the fact that it was one of the game's most ferocious dunkers elevating his way, he might have thought twice about it.

Chandler not only saved the game, he also saved Toney Douglas. The rookie was on his way down the lane for a drive that would have put the Knicks ahead by three with 7.9 seconds left when Smith reached in at just the right time to poke the ball away.

Douglas played 23:34 and shot the ball well (4-for-8), but also was very active on defense and seems to be getting a better understanding of the offense as both a scorer and a facilitator. The most important thing was that he was noticable on the court, which isn't something you could say about him in some of his previous appearances.

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"I just wanted to make sure I made an impact, on offense or on defense," he said. "Using my speed and quickness. Knowing who is guarding who. I know Gallo had a lot of mismatches . . . I've learned a lot, man. Me not playing helped me become a better student of the game from the bench. Watching the veterans out there, watching other teams, watching the whole NBA."

* - Apparently, LeBron James took a keen interest in the Knicks-Hawks game and had a rooting interest. The Cleveland Plain Dealer explains here.

* - David Lee had his usual double-double, but the stat that jumped out was the five fouls he collected in the game. It's not that Lee was in major foul trouble, but he did use those fouls wisely. On two occasions in the second half, he took hard fouls to stop what would have been easy layups.

* - Tracy McGrady is expected to be back in the lineup for Wednesday's game against the Spurs in San Antonio, which is the start of a five-game road trip for the Knicks. That is also when Eddy Curry is expected to make his return to the lineup, as well.

* - Joe Johnson cordially answered all of the 2010 questions that came his way before the game and gave a couple of very interesting answers, especially in regards to the prospects of signing with a team that is rebuilding. Read the story here for more.

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