Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

It was late in the third quarter of a makeup game against the Kings before a non-capacity, non-happy crowd at the Garden, on a dreary, slushy night in Manhattan.

Mike Breen and Walt Frazier were passing the time on MSG discussing the ethics of tanking, from the high school girls level to the NBA, when Breen abruptly mentioned in passing, "Knicks, by the way, on a 12-0 run."

Wait . . . 12-0? Shouldn't that have been cause for excitement, or at least attention? Alas, not really.

The run allowed the Knicks to trim a 44-point deficit to a mere 32 en route to a 124-86 loss Tuesday night, another step toward the end of this taxing season April 15.

Ticket-buying fans, who continue to show up reliably, are the real victims of the 12-47 Knicks' rebuilding pains. But even though Breen and Frazier get paid for their work, this isn't much fun for them, either.

"This has been rock bottom," Frazier said as he sat courtside before Tuesday's game, speaking in general of the Knicks' fortunes, not his job as an analyst. "We've never experienced this before."

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But Frazier and Breen, his lead play-by-play partner, say they are determined even during blowout losses to keep their professional obligations in mind and serve those who still are watching.

"I study harder because I want to try to keep the fans interested and entertained and give them a little more insight before they turn it off," Frazier said.

"Anybody can do a LeBron [James] game or Kobe [Bryant] game. To try to keep people interested when the team isn't playing well, it's a challenge . . . I over-study. It's like doing a baseball game. You have to be a good storyteller."

Breen also used the word "challenging" but said having Frazier, arguably the best player in Knicks history, sitting beside him makes it easier to get through a lopsided clunker.

"I think in the past five or six years he's become so much more willing to let his real personality come out over the air," Breen said. "He understands some games are a tough watch, so make it entertaining and have some fun. His filter isn't what it used to be, and it's great."

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Not that Frazier is all yuks. Bad basketball bothers him as much as ever, and he has shown a willingness to make pointed points on the air.

Many eyebrows were raised during a loss to the Cavaliers Feb. 22 when Frazier wondered aloud why other NBA teams did not seem to be adopting the triangle offense after Phil Jackson won all those championships using it.

"People want to know: Is this the problem with the team?" Frazier said Tuesday. "Is it the triangle offense? Can we attract players here during the triangle offense?"

Those are questions for another day. For now there are six weeks left of games to play, and televise.

Frazier and Breen still aim to both entertain and educate.

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"A lot of times when they're out of it he's always telling me, 'Oh, people love when you tell stories,'" Frazier said. "So I start relating more about the evolution of the game and try to keep it interesting in that respect."

And some games still are fun, meaningless though they may be. The Knicks won thrillers over the Pistons and Raptors last weekend.

"It's a really interesting dynamic, because quite frankly, losing enhances their ability to get the number one pick, it's plain and simple," Breen said. "But when the game starts and the team is competing, it goes out the window and not only with us on the air but more so in the stands."

He said Knicks fans' enduring passion at the end of close games "is proof to me that they are without question the greatest fans in the world."

Still, even loyal fans need something to inspire them. Frazier said too often at tipoff the Garden vibe resembles that of a "golf match." He lamented visiting teams are not "intimidated like they used to be coming here. That's what they have to get back to.

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"Instill that fear like [Charles] Oakley had, [Patrick] Ewing. Teams weren't comfortable coming in here."

In disappointing seasons past, and early in this one, Breen and Frazier have been bluntly critical of the team, but as the roster has been diminished and management's plan has become clear, there isn't much point in it anymore.

"Once they made the trades and decided, OK, we're not making the playoffs, we have to start playing for next year, then it is what it is," Breen said. "The fans know it, the media knows it, the players know it. Now the interesting part is to see what they can build with what they have here."

Breen said during times such as these he recalls something a Knicks fan told him during the Isiah Thomas era, when he complained that Breen was being too critical.

The point was not that the fan wanted sugarcoating. It was that as long as he was watching, he wanted analysis about how to make things better, not merely dwelling on the obvious shortcomings of the present.

"He said, 'Listen, I watch every game; I know they're bad, so you don't have to hit me over the head with it every time they bring the ball up the court,'" Breen recalled the fan saying. "It was really a good wakeup call."

Does Frazier still believe his old teammate, team president Phil Jackson, can get it done?

"Action Jackson?" he said. "Yeah, I still have faith in him. This has taken a toll on him . . . He's not at home counting his salary, that's for sure. His reputation is on the line. His legacy is on the line, so he knows this is crucial."

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, Madison Square Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.