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Knicks can't overcome big deficit in loss to 76ers

The drive for 40 wins got one game tougher Friday night, and Mike D'Antoni, who set that lofty goal for his team after the All-Star break, continues to try to get a feel for his ever-changing roster.

After cutting a 22-point deficit to two, the Knicks lost to the 76ers, 108-103, at the Garden. They remain 21/2 games behind the eighth-place Bucks in the battle for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.

Because of trades and injuries, D'Antoni has faced the problem of integrating new players into the lineup virtually all season. "Each time we went through a process where we struggled," Chris Duhon said of the most recent personnel changes. "Only problem this time is we're in a playoff hunt, so we don't have that many games to try to get things right. We've got to find the solution quickly."

The D'Antoni style of play that Charles Barkley dismissed as "sissy ball" on TNT's NBA broadcast Thursday managed a furious second-half rally to get back into Friday's game. Newcomer Larry Hughes, who had turned off the fans by shooting 4-for-22 in his first three games after coming over from the Bulls, shot 3-for-4 from three-point range in the third quarter as the Knicks -- who had fallen behind 28-7 and 49-27 -- cut into a 17-point halftime deficit.

The Knicks got within 81-79 on Nate Robinson's three-pointer and moved within 101-99 with 2:18 to play when Al Harrington found Robinson on a cut.

But Andre Miller (25 points, six assists), who drove into the heart of the Knicks' defense all night, hit a runner with 1:59 left. The Knicks failed to score on the next three possessions and Miller again got into the paint to draw a loose-ball foul with 41.3 seconds to go. His two free throws made it 105-99.

Hughes had 25 points, Harrington added 23 and David Lee extended his double-double streak to 22 with 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Knicks (24-34). "My legs feel a lot better and my wind is good," Hughes said. "It's just a matter of getting that pop in my step and getting confident . . . My teammates found me and I was able to knock some shots down and get into a rhythm. Obviously, I played some more minutes tonight, and that helped."

D'Antoni juggled his lineup again, saying before the game that he was "still looking for a rotation that feels good." He still might be looking for one Saturday night against the Heat. Perhaps he'll give Hughes a look at shooting guard.

"It's going to take an adjustment on my part to be able to figure the group that we need to go with," D'Antoni said.

Danilo Gallinari played limited minutes (11:46) and had a limited role when he was on the floor, which seems to be his fate; D'Antoni is set on favoring his veterans for the playoff push.

Duhon suggested there isn't a great deal of confidence that the rookie, despite showing a terrific stroke and precocious confidence, can handle a bigger role at this point.

"Personally, not yet, but he's close," Duhon said. "I think he still has to get his back injury healthy to where he can move freely all the time. I think there are times where he's just not as explosive as he can be. Once he gets healthy, I would expect him to play 30 minutes a game."

The way the Knicks have started games recently, he can't be any worse than his veteran teammates.

D'Antoni's starters had five turnovers in their first six possessions and fell behind 20-5 in the first 8:21. When Wilson Chandler turned the ball over and Andre Iguodala drove in for a dunk, the 76ers went up 28-7.

Said Robinson, "That first quarter killed us."

Notes & quotes: The Knicks honored members of the Tuskegee Airmen with the Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award for the month of February.

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