Mike D'Antoni and The Expendables -- this roster loaded with expiring contracts aimed at bigger things in 2010 -- continued a determined push for a playoff berth this season with a 127-97 rout of the Toronto Raptors Friday at the Garden of Dreams.
A day after team president Donnie Walsh made a pair of trades to improve the team in the short term -- without impacting the long-term goal of hoarding salary-cap space for the star-loaded free-agency summer of 2010 -- the Garden was buzzing with optimism about the what-is just as much as the what-is-to-come.
"I think it's a big factor in the sense that we do have money in 2010, everybody knows that, but we're not waiting for that," D'Antoni said after watching the Knicks take a 75-50 halftime lead. "You're not going to play with one or two guys in 2010. You have to have 10 guys, and these guys will hopefully be the core of that group."
And for the most part, it was the young core that led the way in the second straight win for the Knicks (23-31) after a six-game losing streak.
The Knicks -- who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday -- moved within two games of the Bucks (who lost to the Cavaliers and LeBron James' 55 points) in the battle for the final playoff berth in the East. They also tied their dismal win total of last season with 28 games to go.
Wilson Chandler had a career-high 32 points, the ever-popular Nate Robinson (an appearance on Letterman Thursday night) had 26 points and seven assists, and David Lee had his league-leading 43rd double-double of the season (and 18th straight) with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Al Harrington had 20 points.
The other face among the Knicks' young core, rookie Danilo Gallinari, might not have the confidence of the coaching staff to play a major role in this playoff push. Gallinari played 23 minutes, mostly in garbage time, and had 10 points. Playing on Italian Heritage Night in a game that was broadcast live on Italian TV and against one of his countrymen, Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani (18 points), Gallinari shot just 3-for-10 from the floor.
"I think our focus now is to finish the year as well as we can and get as many wins as we can," D'Antoni said. "If Gallo's part of that, that's great. I hope he is. But we're going to play the best rotation, best players, and go from there. That's what summer league and preseason and everything else is for, developing people. Right now, we're trying to win games."
Wilcox (expiring contract) was in uniform but did not play; Hughes (contract expires after next season) also was in the building. These and other contracts are here to make room for players such as Toronto's Chris Bosh.
But it wasn't much of an audition for Bosh, who played with a brace on a sprained right knee that caused him to miss the All-Star Game. Bosh, with limited mobility, had 12 points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes for the struggling Raptors (21-36).
The Knicks shot 72.7 percent from the field in the first quarter (16-for-22) and brought a 42-22 lead into the second quarter. They led by 30 in the second, had 75 points by halftime and led by 38 points in the third.
"We have four or five guys just on fire," D'Antoni said. "It does make it tough for any team."
Notes & quotes: Hughes, who will be the first player in Knicks history to wear No. 0, completed his physical but could not dress because the physicals were not completed on Chicago's end. The Bulls traded Hughes to the Knicks for Tim Thomas, Anthony Roberson and Jerome James, whose physical had to be waived because he is out with a ruptured Achilles. Hughes is expected to be available for Sunday's game in Toronto. Wilcox will wear No. 9 . . . The Knicks made 17 of 39 three-pointers, two makes short of the franchise record.