The Knicks had just defeated the Indiana Pacers by 43 points and there were reporters lingering near the stall of Larry Hughes, who was the only active player who didn't get in the game.

Around the room were several standouts from the most dominant win of the season for a Knick team that - at the time - was playing its best basketball and creeping closer and closer to the top 8 in the East.

But as Hughes turned around and tape recorders extended to his face, he became the story.

Place the blame everywhere:

On him, for taking the opportunity to put himself ahead of the team.

On the media, for giving him the forum to do so.

On you, because it's proven fact that a majority of you actually respond to this kind of coverage.

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This second incident, however, goes squarely on Hughes' shoulders. The fact that after re-iterating his frustration before the game in Detroit on Saturday -- when he played 8:24 -- made it a given that reporters would seek his reaction afterward. It was his choice to call it "a joke" and proceed to squirt lighter fluid all over the smoldering coals.

Right in front of his exhausted teammates, who were already annoyed at him for dumping water on their Jan. 3 blowout win.

Yes, it's a joke that a veteran of 11 NBA seasons warmed up with a coffee stirrer in his mouth before a road game. It's a joke he would not understand how when he was in the eight-man rotation, he had no issue with Mike D'Antoni's structure, but once Nate Robinson jumped into his timeslot, D'Antoni was wrong.

It's a joke that Hughes, who played in 700 NBA games before Saturday, would need a heads up to be ready to play.

Wouldn't that suggest that Hughes - who promoted himself as a veteran leader earlier this season when he and Al Harrington called a team meeting - was sitting on the bench disengaged during the previous seven games?

Full disclosure: It's been written in this space before that Hughes did and still could help the Knicks mainly because of his versatility. He is a good defender but is also someone who could provide a needed backup point guard role, which is clearly not in Robinson's skill set. He should split time with Robinson in that third guard role, depending on the need of a particular night.

But Hughes has said before -- let's remind you of his outspoken frustration in Chicago -- that he's not interested in spot minutes.

Hughes said on Saturday he just wants to win. But we know what this is really about. He, like seven other Knicks, are in expiring contracts.

Al Harrington, who hangs a lot of Hughes away from the gym, is still getting his ticks, even with the young legs of rookie Jordan Hill ready to bounce right over him in the rotation.

Imagine the toxicty of the room if D'Antoni ever made the decision to play Hill over Harrington (who is fighting through sore knees)?

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The end of the bench has become a frustrated wasteland of persecuted personalities. Darko Milicic hardly gave an effort and, instead of working harder, just wants to go home (but wants to get all of his money while he does it). Eddy Curry got himself into shape for the first time in two years and expects that to be enough to warrant playing time (Hey Eddy, how about going to the coaching staff and working on ways you can use the pick-and-roll to your advantage? What ever happened to being proactive??).

It's funny, Curry has the same agent as LeBron James (Leon Rose) and Hughes is texting buddies with LeBron.

If LeBron considers those dealbreakers in coming to New York, you don't really want him here anyway.

* * *

* - If you're attending today's MLK matinee at the Garden, head to Penn Station's Amtrak concourse at 11 a.m. for a cool NBA event. "Speed painter" Dan Dunn will paint portraits of the participants in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest for All-Star Saturday in Dallas on Feb. 13.

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Will defending champion Nate Robinson be among them? Earlier in the season, Robinson said he'd go back for a fourth time if LeBron James agreed to participate. At last year's contest, LeBron said he would consider entering the contest to bring back some of the cache from the 1980s back to the show.