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Knicks lose, but plan clearly is about winning now

Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni shouts from the

Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni shouts from the bench during his team's 106-88 loss to Oklahoma City. (January 11, 2010) Credit: AP

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Knicks’ heralded 2010 plan has been slightly altered. Instead of the focus on July, the timetable has been moved up to April, as in playoff time.

Before last night’s 106-88 loss to the Thunder — in which Kevin Durant had 30 points and Nate Robinson led the Knicks with 19 — Mike DAntoni admitted that at one point, he was so caught up in looking toward the big summer ahead that he didn’t give his team a chance to compete for a big spring.

“When we started off slow, at that point I got off track, too, and it was about 2010,” D'Antoni said in a candid admission at the team’s morning shootaround. “I said, ‘Let’s throw all the rookies in, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ And after you’re 1-9, there was no way I was going to make it through 82 games like that.”

Earlier in the season, D'Antoni seemed to put a great deal of concern into potential determining factors for this summer’s free- agency sweepstakes, such as getting the rookies some playing time to get them some market value and also forcing Eddy Curry into the rotation even for cameo appearances as a desperate attempt to get his stock up to entice a trade.

The Knicks — who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday — potentially could clear enough salary-cap space to offer two maximum contracts if they were able to trade Curry, who will make $11.2 million next season, for an expiring contract.

But when D’Antoni put Curry on the floor for games in Charlotte and Chicago after finally having committed to a tight rotation, the move upset some of Curry’s teammates. In both games, Curry’s presence — and D’Antoni’s call to have post-up plays run for the rusty 7-footer — disrupted the flow of the offense, and the team wound up losing both games after having won four straight.

“I was just playing too many guys, thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, but we’ve got to think about 2010,’ and it just never works out that way,” D’Antoni said. “Your first priority is winning.”

After some reflection, D’Antoni decided he had to give that up before he lost the team. He made another tough decision a week later when he removed defensively undisciplined Nate Robinson from the rotation. And D’Antoni, he of the high-scoring offense and reputation of being a players’ coach, got tougher with his players and enforced a commitment to defense. It was a change, he said, that the players “picked up and took it to a level I didn’t know they could go.”

One move was to take a suggestion by assistant coach Ken Atkinson, who believed playing zone — a rare tactic in the NBA — would hide the team’s greatest weakness for the past several years: interior defense.

Defensive specialist Jared Jeffries was made the quarterback of the zone; everything is funneled toward him. He now averages 1.1 blocked shots per game, which is the most by any Knick since Kurt Thomas (1.0) in 2003-04. Even though Jeffries is another of those 2010 contracts the Knicks could shed to clear cap space, he has become almost too valuable to lose. Not with the playoffs a legitimate reality.

Also, just as David Lee is turning in an all-star season so far, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler have emerged as headliners since the start of December. As D’Antoni pointed out, that factor is just as important to the 2010 Plan as anything, because the more promising the future looks for the Knicks, the more enticing they become to a free agent such as LeBron James.

“One of our biggest things is Wil and Gallo and the maturation process, and losing doesn’t do them any good,” D’Antoni said.

“We’ve got to get them into games where every game matters and get them playoff experience and stuff like that.”

But that kind of 2010 talk has been moved to the back burner, replaced by talk about a playoff push and reaching .500.

While not everyone is happy about his role, everyone at least believes this season really is about winning now.

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