Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

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

A time traveler from that innocent, hopeful year of 2011 would have found this a little sad, and more than a little surprising, but it's so: The Knicks at this stage would benefit from even one playoff victory -- any playoff victory.

That is not where they were supposed to be in May 2012, not with a star-studded frontcourt and its payroll to match. But that is where they are and why even in a series that doesn't appear winnable, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal is hugely important for a team that has not won in the playoffs since Iman Shumpert was 10 years old.

If the Knicks lose Thursday they must live -- for who knows how long -- with sole possession of the NBA record for longest postseason losing streak. (They're at 12 and counting.)

That is no way to head into the offseason for a team with enough talent to be a factor in 2012-13 but with a fragile psyche, as evidenced by Amar'e Stoudemire's KO by a fire extinguisher casing in Miami Monday night.

Winning Thursday night or Sunday also would allow the Knicks to avoid the ignominy of watching Miami celebrate winning the series on the Garden floor, as the Celtics did last season and the Nets did in 2004 and the Raptors did in '01 and the Pacers did in '00 and the Spurs did in 1999.

The Knicks are painfully aware of the history, even though none of them is responsible for anything earlier than last year's sweep.

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Interim coach Mike Woodson admitted ending the losing streak is added incentive. "Yeah, I know that's dangling out there," he said, "but hey, I'm not even thinking about that, man. I'm thinking about Game 3, trying to get a game under our belts."

The good news is that despite the loss of Stoudemire, a victory hardly is far-fetched. The Knicks have been better when Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire do not play together, and the Heat sometimes wilts on the road.

The loss of Shumpert arguably was a bigger blow than Stoudemire's injury, because it gives the Heat's Dwyane Wade free rein in the backcourt. But the Knicks plausibly could win if Anthony is on his game and if J.R. Smith and / or Steve Novak get hot from the perimeter.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy,'' Anthony said after practice Wednesday. "Guys who have not been playing have to step up and get ready for the challenge that's facing us."

Where will the complementary scoring come from, though?

"I don't know, I don't know," Anthony said. "We have to figure that out. Some way, somehow everybody has to do it. Miami is not going to let me beat them by myself."

Woodson was not even sure -- or would not say -- who will start at small forward with Anthony moving to power forward in Stoudemire's place.

No matter where Anthony lines up, the Heat will find him. "I expect LeBron, Battier, Bosh, Anthony, everybody -- even guys who are not on the team,'' Anthony said, laughing. "I'll be expecting them to throw everything out there and continue to try to get the ball out of my hands.''

Knicks fans are sophisticated enough to know winning the series is unlikely. But they are starved enough for excitement that they will enter Game 3 hopeful and leave it excited if their team gives them reason to be. It's the least the Knicks can do for them, and for themselves, after a tumultuous season.

"There's been a lot going on, we all know that, you guys wrote about it, we dealt with it,'' Anthony said. "But right now this is not the time to be complaining about stuff.''

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Right now is the time to win a game.

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, Madison Square

Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.