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Reality Has Settled Over New York

To live and die in New York (continued): At least we have the answer to a question posed on the recent cover of ESPN the Magazine: “Can Steph and Isiah save the East?”

Well, maybe not right away.

A funny thing happened to the New York Knicks on their way to a title, which team President Isiah Thomas proclaimed as their goal and Madison Square Garden boss James Dolan seemed to think was in sight when he said they could go “all the way.”

The Knicks, who hadn’t even reached .500, promptly lost seven of eight and are eight games under.

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Happily for them, they’re in the East, so they’re not only in a playoff slot, they’re No. 6. And if the celebration in Gotham was premature, it was also huge, showing what an incredible audience the Knicks still have, yearning for them to get it right.

Of course, by now, New Yorkers aren’t picky about what “right” is, so even after Spike Lee endorsed breaking it up and starting over, everyone went bonkers when Thomas, a star in his own right, arrived and declared a new era, starting now, then went out and got Stephon Marbury.

After years of Bashful Scott Layden’s ducking the press and Dopey Dolan’s bragging about front office harmony, New Yorkers were back in the game they love. Big names! Trades! Firings!

Gotham swooned as Thomas turned over his coach and half his roster. New York likes to think of itself as the Great White Shark of Sports Journalism but, as cataloged by the New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman, the cheerleading included a WFAN host celebrating a win over the Miami Heat, another powerhouse, announcing, “The Knicks are back! The Knicks are back!” One ESPN 1050 expert called Thomas’ impact “unprecedented” and another nominated him for NBA executive of the year and United States president.

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Time will tell if Thomas can pull a rabbit out of this hat, but he’s at least making it interesting.

After the Overmatched Layden Era, this is like the Dave & Ernie Era, when the Garden’s then-boss Dave Checketts and then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld kept thinking up new moves when it looked as though they were all out.

Of course, Dave and Ernie got progressively more desperate (Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Luc Longley), which is why they no longer work there.

Unfortunately, rebuilding on the fly, as opposed to saving cap room for Shaquille O’Neal or getting Tim Duncan in the lottery, means gambling on players someone doesn’t want.

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Worse, there’s always the chance -- OK, the certainty -- their old teams know more about them than you do.

Even after hitting it big on Marbury, Thomas had to bet on more players like Tim Thomas, the Hamlet of the perennial disappointments, a 6-foot-10 forward with mouth-watering potential who makes $11.9 million and couldn’t average 15 points after the Milwaukee Bucks dumped their Big Three and started over.

LeBron James’ Garden debut last week was hyped as the arrival of a fledgling icon, but it was also a test of rebuilding projects between the Knicks’ Foreign Legion of veterans with questionable credentials and the young Cleveland Cavaliers.

James played well but, more significantly, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Carlos Boozer walked all over the Knick front line in a 92-86 upset. Knick fans awoke from their coma and chanted, “Keith Van Horn!” for their old favorite (all you have to do is die or leave), who’d been traded for Tim Thomas.

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Breaking the modern record for writing a deal off, 12 days after it went down, a New York Post headline announced, “Tim Thomas Trade Looks Like a Bust.”

Indeed, Van Horn had been one of the best Knicks this season, but then there was that little problem Marbury had with him that everyone knew about, even if everyone denied it.

Luckily, Isiah Thomas is nothing if not resourceful and has more tricks up his sleeve, namely Rasheed Wallace.

Trying to force a trade to the Knicks, his agent told everyone Wallace would go there in summer as a free agent, even if he had to take the $5-million veteran’s exception.

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Undeterred, the Detroit Pistons traded for Wallace and will try to sign him, unless he bites Joe Dumars or Larry Brown in the neck, with the balance of power in the East hanging on the outcome.

So Wallace, making $17 million -- “About twice what he’s worth,” said a Portland official -- may find someone to pay him that much, after years of his werewolf act that made his departure a holiday in Portland.

Meanwhile, the teams now lining up to be the latest to try to salvage Vin Baker include Toronto, Philadelphia, Miami and, of course, the Knicks. All, of course, are in the East.

The revised Knick plan is to go “all the way” to No. 5 so as to duck Indiana, New Jersey and Detroit in the first round. But they’re six games behind Milwaukee, which leads the season series, 2-1, and has an easier schedule.

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It’s not the long-awaited return to glory yet, but at least it’s exciting.

To Live and Die in L.A. (Continued)

Just when they started feeling good about themselves, again.

There’s a question of just how much anything changed in the Lakers’ winning streak, or as one player said, “Don’t be fooled by all the high fives.”

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However, there was a lightening of the mood as Phil Jackson sat down with He Hate Me, Kobe Bryant, who turned brilliant and unselfish. Even the gods seemed to root for them, or the referees, anyway, donating the game at Denver, where Luke Walton (?) and Kareem Rush (??) combined on what could have been The Play of the Season.

Then along came the Sacramento Kings without Chris Webber, Brad Miller and Bobby Jackson. Of course, even they might not be able to make 12 of 24 threes on the road again but then, with everyone back, they may not have to.

Meanwhile, the Lakers had already begun vibrating again.

At Phoenix, owner Jerry Buss told ESPN’s Jim Gray that Bryant was “a Laker for life” but wouldn’t speculate about the lives of Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal.

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Buss is in negotiations with O’Neal, at an impasse with Jackson and under the gun with Bryant. Nevertheless, when traversing a tar pit, it’s not wise to light up.

Amazingly, O’Neal, who loathes the idea of Bryant’s being the owner’s favorite, shrugged it off. Privately, O’Neal is fine with waiting until summer for his extension because he can get a third season at $25 million to $30 million. However, showing he’s still the kind of guy who’d find something to complain about in a harem, he blasted General Manager Mitch Kupchak for the snag in talks.

Kupchak just works there and anyone dealing with Buss does it on his ultra-relaxed schedule. Last summer, it took a nerve-racking week just to arrange a welcoming phone call to Karl Malone, holding up the signing while the San Antonio Spurs, who were offering three times as much, tried to get in the picture.

Then there’s Bryant, still discovering the wonder of himself, trying out new tricks like a kid opening his gifts on Christmas. His new toys are the bank shot (fine) and the left-hander (lose that, will you?), which he even combined against the Kings, banking in a left-handed five-footer.

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In the game’s history, there has only been one player a coach would ever have had to ask, “Kobe, would you mind going back to your shooting hand?”

Then Gary Payton, fuming for months, let his agent, Aaron Goodwin, run out his list of problems to our Tim Brown. Payton, used to the free rein only a gamer as great and as volatile as he is could command, wants the ball, more minutes and less chatter about the triangle or anything else.

Goodwin added he hoped they would allow Payton, who can also opt out, to be himself for “at least the last few games.”

Obviously, it’s time to re-dedicate themselves to showing they can win anyway on pure greatness. Otherwise, it’s The End, long dreaded, always cheated, looming again.

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It’s not here yet, but it’s not hard to imagine how it would go anymore.

Pack up.

Listen to Jackson (yawn) tell us what we need to do next season.

Eight free agents tell media they’ll study options. Minimize O’Neal’s blowing off the meeting.

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Turn out lights, party’s over.


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