Cleanthony Early kept getting the ball down the stretch Wednesday night. The Knicks rookie probably felt as if he were back in college, but he took little satisfaction in it.

Early lost only once at Wichita State last season. The Knicks have lost 61 times, including Wednesday night against the Nets, a 100-98 defeat that wasn't decided until Early air-balled a three-pointer at the buzzer.

But Early scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, one fewer than the Nets, and shot 6-for-10 in the quarter. His performance and the fact that Derek Fisher trusted him late in the game was of little consolation, though.

"It's a learning experience. I think I'm smart enough to realize that," Early said. "But as far as being happy, I don't think there's anything to really be happy about. You know what I'm saying? But I know that I'm getting better, more comfortable, more confident. I'll just take it and just continue to feed off of it and continue to work hard."

The Knicks, who play the Wizards in Washington on Friday night, have seven games left before an offseason of change begins.

Early, 23, is one of four players whose contract is guaranteed for next season. He plays the same position as Carmelo Anthony and hasn't shown enough to be considered a rotation player next season. But Early, the second-round pick (No. 34) acquired in the trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to Dallas, is producing more lately and said he is feeling more relaxed.

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He's averaging only 5.7 points and shooting 36.2 percent overall, but Early has scored at least 12 points in three of the four games he's played since returning from a sprained ankle. He's reached double digits in six of the last nine games.

Early's development was stunted by early-season knee surgery. He missed 23 games because of his knee and 30 overall because of injury, but the religious Early said it was part of God's plan.

"I know it was because it happened," he said. "I just have to continue to fight through that adversity or those trials and tribulations, just continue to strive for what I know I can be, what I know I can do."

Fisher has been encouraged by what he's seen lately from Early.

"I think he's getting more comfortable and confident out there with the opportunity that he's getting to play each night since he's been back and healthy,'' Fisher said. "It's great to see that from him. He wasn't afraid of the moment out there, made some really big plays, and even the couple shots that he missed, it takes a certain mind-set to be willing to take those shots. That's what you like to see from young guys.

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"I think he's showing that he has a bright future as long as he continues the right attitude and he's willing to continue to work."