There's little doubt who wears the Sherrif's badge around here. Mike D'Antoni came to New York with the reputation as a players' coach, but has presented more of a dictatorship in his first two seasons of this rebuilding project with the Knicks.

D'Antoni can rule with this iron fist because he has the confidence that almost none of the players in his locker room has: job security. It usually works the other way around in the NBA, where the longterm contract guys tend to know they're going nowhere, but what we have here at the Garden is a throwback situation. And that's what makes players like Nate Robinson, Eddy Curry and, now, Larry Hughes, so uneasy, because they are used to very different circumstances.

"I think that's part of what I expected would have to happen, is that there would have to be a culture developed that would be conducive to winning," Donnie Walsh said. "I'm not in the locker room, so I don't know all of the ifs, ands or buts, but I feel like Mike has had to do that going back to last year."

Yes, last year, when D'Antoni's first order of business was to eliminate Stephon Marbury, who had negatively dominated the locker room for too many years and led an inmates-running-the-asylum culture in the Isiah Thomas regime.

D'Antoni has picked his battles, for sure. He stuck with Chris Duhon despite some awful play early in the season, but mainly because Duhon, in his mind, was the only playmaking point guard who could run an offense on the roster. If he buried Duhon and lost him, he'd lose control of the offense, for sure. He took on Robinson mainly because he knew he could win without him, which was subsequently proven. That should have been the most alarming thing to Nate.

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Now, what would have happened if Hughes never got hurt and remained the productive player he was before the groin injury? Or what if rookie Toney Douglas was able to emerge as an important two-way presence off the bench? Would Robinson have ever gotten that second chance?

D'Antoni could smile at Robinson's electrifying 41-point redemption performance against Atlanta, but, just like with Curry's physical transformation from being overweight to actually looking like an NBA player, D'Antoni says spare him the accolades for Nate for behaving well during the 14-game benching and for running those arena steps to keep himself ready.

"We pay a lot to guys to stay ready," D'Antoni said before Sunday's game. "I think most people in the work place would be kinda ready if they're getting paid his money . . . I'm glad he did it and he should have done it, but I don't think we should say, 'Oh man, this is really great that somebody actually worked for a living.' I feel a little strange saying that because so many people have to work hard every day. But I am glad he did do it and he did the right thing and it worked out for him."

And Walsh backed his coach when he said Nate's amazing performance didn't prove he should have been playing all along.

"It seems to me that it proved Mike right in his absence all the way through," Walsh said. "When he changed the rotation, we won. And when he went back to Nate, we won that game."

Will Jonathan Bender eventually prove D'Antoni right, as well? This reclamation project is struggling to find his game after a four-year layoff, but D'Antoni is committing a valuable spot in the rotation to him mainly because he believes this could be an investment for later in the season, when the Knicks hope to be playing for a playoff spot. The team has until Wednesday to decide whether they want to guarantee Bender's contract ($800K) for the rest of the season or put him on waivers. By Friday, all non-guaranteed contracts are locked in for the rest of the season.

It sounds like the Knicks plan to keep Bender around, as long as he feels he is physically able to keep the pace.

"We think that this is not only for right now, this is for the future," D'Antoni said of Bender last week. "He's the type of player that, if we can get him to a certain level, he'd be very, very valuable and we need to stick with him."

Meanwhile, it was last Monday at practice when D'Antoni issued a public warning to Hughes, whom he said needed to "step it up." Six days later, when Robinson was back in the rotation and Hughes was out, D'Antoni was asked if he made sure Hughes understood the decision.

"What is there to understand?" D'Antoni said. "That's the way life is. I think everybody understands we're trying to win."

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And everyone knows who is in charge.