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Hahn: With Knicks on cusp of playoff mix, showcase minutes shrink

Eddy Curry of the Knicks listens to a

Eddy Curry of the Knicks listens to a question during an interview on Media Day at the MSG training center. (September 28, 2009) Credit: Newsday/CRAIG RUTTLE

The smoldering mood in the visitors' locker room at United Center on Dec. 17 suggested a greater frustration than just the come-from-ahead defeat the Knicks took that night against the hapless Bulls. There were players furious about Mike D'Antoni's handling of the rotation that night and in the previous game, a loss in Charlotte, which derailed a promising four-game winning streak.

But the dissidents weren't who you might think. Before Nate Robinson's agent made a trade request and well before Eddy Curry called his lack of playing time "ridiculous," it was the players in the rotation who were displeased with the coach.

It does involve Curry, however. He entered both games in the first half, and his presence - and the offense's sudden switch from motion to a stagnant post-up set - effectively eliminated positive momentum in both games.

Pretty much everyone in the NBA knows the Knicks would love to trade Curry for an expiring contract to clear his $11.2 million off the 2010 salary cap.

And pretty much every Knick - aside from, apparently, Curry - knows D'Antoni was forcing Curry into games strictly for showcase purposes.

That didn't sit well with the players who thought the team finally had gotten in a good rhythm offensively during the winning streak. Is it really coincidence that the Knicks subsequently won three straight after D'Antoni decided to eliminate Curry from the rotation?

D'Antoni's explanation - "Just trying to win," he said Saturday - tells only part of the story. He is in a precarious position because after a 1-9 start, the Knicks somehow went into last night's game against the Spurs a half-game out of a playoff spot in the weak East with more than half of the season remaining.

As much as there is a commitment to the 2010 plan and the effort to hoard as much cap space as possible in order to potentially slide two max offers across the table to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade next summer (let's call their bluff on this dynamic duo talk), D'Antoni owes it to the players who carried the team out of the early slump to make more of a commitment to trying to win games and possibly reaching the playoffs.

Curry also is angry with D'Antoni for not communicating with him about being taken out of the rotation. But Al Harrington, who has been in and out of the starting lineup all season, said it's also up to the player to communicate with his coach.

"My whole thing is," Harrington said, "if you have a coach that doesn't communicate sometimes, you've got to extend the arm."

And what is ridiculous - to use Curry's word from Christmas Day - is the notion that D'Antoni doesn't want to play Curry right now. How could he not want to find a way to make the lumbering 7-footer look appealing enough for some team - any team - to be willing to make a deal?

Consider the fact that D'Antoni came to the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - not just for the money but for the unlimited potential of 2010. He took the job knowing that these first two seasons would involve doing everything possible to create cap space to go after a star player (or two).

Robinson's case, with a one-year contract, is much different. The move to bury him deep on the bench is clearly a power play by D'Antoni, but, perhaps, a necessary one for a team that still has elements of the Isiah Thomas regime, which had gotten used to a lack of accountability. Within that environment, there was an obvious sense of entitlement among the players when it came to playing time.

D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh - make no mistake, he is in full support - are attempting to eradicate that culture.

"We've had a changed team since I've been here, a lot of different players," Walsh said. "So it's not the same situation that it was for the players that were here. That's the nature of transition."

In every transition, there are casualties. Consider Curry and Robinson, holdovers from the previous era, two of them.

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