To outside observers, there was a completely different sort of egg hunt going on at Madison Square Garden Sunday night. The Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, owners of a combined 32 wins entering the game, matched up in a veritable battle of the ping-pong balls. A win would be harmful and a loss could only mean a better chance in the draft lottery.
But that's not how things really work, Knicks coach Derek Fisher said. Professional players generally don't tank. That goes double for young players with no sure future in the league and a short period of time to lend a spark to the pitch-black Eastern Conference basement.
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Though play was sloppy at times and the fans, doing their best impression of library patrons, cheered the loudest for the courtside appearance of former Genesis frontman Phil Collins, the Knicks ended their losing streak at nine games, 101-91.
Andrea Bargnani matched his season high with 25 points and also had eight rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots. Shane Larkin added 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. A dunk by Lance Thomas (14 points) on a feed from Bargnani with 4:42 left gave the Knicks (15-62) the lead for good at 87-85.
Hollis Thompson and Ish Smith had 17 points each to lead the 76ers (18-60).
The Knicks remain the worst team in the league -- 21/2 games behind the 76ers and 11/2 games behind the Timberwolves -- and if that's still the case five games from now, they'll have a one-in-four chance at the first draft pick come June.
"Everybody is going to throw this tanking word around," Fisher said before the game. "Philly is playing really hard right now and taking a lot of pride in what they're trying to do out there. Similar to us, they have a lot of young guys that have no future guaranteed in this league. So they're playing every position as hard as they can, and that's kind of what we're trying to do with our guys as well."
Three of the Knicks' starters -- Thomas, Langston Galloway and Lou Amundson -- originally were signed to 10-day contracts. A fourth starter, Larkin, is trudging through an inconsistent season.
"It's tough for them because I do believe they are playing hard and competing, and we just don't have enough to get it done night in and night out at this point for various reasons," Fisher said. "Injuries have devastated us all season long. We're missing some guys now that could help us out there."
Rookie Cleanthony Early, who hurt his ankle in the Knicks' loss to the Washington Wizards on Friday night, sat out Sunday night's game as a precaution. Tim Hardaway Jr., who struggled in his return from a sprained wrist Friday night (he was 0-for-7 from the floor, including 0-for-5 from behind the arc), showed progress, scoring 12 points and shooting 5-for-11.
"I think that they've done a good job of still coming back the next day and still trying to do the right things," Fisher said. "For the most part, the guys have done the best they could do."