TODAY'S PAPER
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Sports

Hopes on ropes

If the Knicks accomplished anything this season, it is that

they are once again watchable. But as their playoff chances die this

agonizingly slow death, it's almost hard to look.

Stephon Marbury has been banged up for weeks and it seems to have finally taken

its toll. David Lee has forced himself back into the lineup despite being

hobbled on a bad leg. Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson and Steve Francis are

out with injuries.

Eddy Curry is almost the last man standing among the Knicks' regulars.

"I'm just watching the ground, making sure I don't step on nobody's feet,

trying not to turn nothing," Curry said. "It's tough around here. Guys are

dropping like flies."

And so are the Knicks. Friday's 99-94 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at

Madison Square Garden was the fourth straight defeat and 10th in the past 12.

It's hard to talk about a playoff push when you're in a freefall, but say this

about the Knicks: they are going down swinging. But these close-margin losses

don't mean anything in the standings, where the Knicks (31-44) find themselves

three games behind the Magic for the final playoff spot in the East. The

critical thing about this game is that it was the game-in-hand the Knicks had

against Orlando. Now, both teams have seven games remaining.

The Knicks play Saturday in Milwaukee against the Bucks before a daunting

back-to-back hosting the Pistons Monday and playing at the Bulls Tuesday.

"At the end of the day we're all competitors," Curry said. "But we realize

what's going on here. We've got guys that are hurt, we've got guys who aren't

playing 100 percent ... It's tough to win that way."

It's even tougher for them to win without Marbury, who has been their leading

scorer and best player the past two months. Marbury re-aggravated a turf toe

injury in his right foot midway through the first quarter and did not play for

most of the game. He left the game 1:20 into the second quarter and did not

return until 35.2 seconds left in the game. Even then, he came back only as a

decoy, with the Knicks trailing 96-92.

Renaldo Balkman scored on a rebound with 16.8 seconds left to make it 96-92 and

the Knicks put rookie Randy Foye on the line with 13.8 seconds left. Foye hit

the first but missed the second, however the miss was long and went right to

Foye, who was not blocked out at the line. Foye bobbled the rebound, but

teammate Craig Smith grabbed it ahead of any Knick on the floor.

Thomas was livid.

"I wasn't nice to them in the locker room tonight," he said. "I was very upset

with them. All season long we fight and we battle and little things we need to

do to complete a play ... we don't do the little things. Every time you're in a

close game, it is the little things that hurt you. It's the little things that

kill you."

That one pretty much was the dagger. Kevin Garnett was eventually fouled with

4.1 seconds left and he hit one of two to make it 98-94 for Minnesota (32-43).

The Knicks were done.

But they never rolled over. They trailed by as many as 18 in the second quarter

but came back to tie it at 74 with 10:27 left on a drive by Mardy Collins. The

Knicks never led in the game.

Nate Robinson led the Knicks with 21 points, including 5-for-7 shooting from

three-point range. Curry had 20 points and Collins had a career-high 16.

Foye led the Timberwolves with 19 points. Garnett had 12 points and 15 rebounds.

Marbury played just 11 minutes and had six points. He said he wasn't sure if he

would be able to play Saturday. He had a cortisone shot at halftime to numb

the pain in the foot. "Once this wears off," Marbury said, "I know how it's

going to feel."

Lee had six points and four rebounds in 20:16 and looked hampered by the sore

right leg that kept him out of 17 of the previous 18 games. But he said he will

play the rest of the season.

"As long as I can walk," Lee said, "I'll be out there trying to play."

Notes & quotes: Richardson returned from Miami, where he underwent back surgery

March 29. Richardson said he felt "better now than before the surgery." It'll

be a few weeks before he can start basketball drills, but he expects to be

ready for training camp in October. Contrary to what Thomas said last week,

Richardson said he didn't foresee surgery two years ago, when the Knicks

acquired him from the Suns. "Oh no, definitely not two years ago," he said.

"Because it wasn't a major problem for me two years ago. This year was as bad

as it got for me." Thomas suggested that the Knicks knew Richardson would

eventually need back surgery ... Alicia Keys, Lou Reed and Depeche Mode lead

singer David Gahan were in attendance.

Saturday

Knicks at

Milwaukee

8:30 p.m.

TV: MSG

Radio: WEPN

(1050)

New York Sports