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Original Issue


Hard Knocks

Embattled coach Isiah Thomas and his dysfunctional Knicks deserve the brunt of the backlash after the NBA's latest brawl

ONE COULD argue that the big losers after last Saturday night's brawl at Madison Square Garden were the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony. Trying to survive as a playoff team in the strong Western Conference, Denver on Monday began a 4½-week stretch (including matchups with the Suns, Mavericks, Lakers, Jazz, Spurs and Rockets) without Anthony, the league's leading scorer, who received a 15-game suspension for his part in the ugliness that broke out in the final 90 seconds of the Nuggets' 123--100 win over the Knicks.

Anthony lost mainstream appeal by throwing a sucker punch that landed on the jaw of New York guard Mardy Collins, as well as street cred by backpedaling—at a rate of speed he rarely uses when playing defense—to escape a counterattack by forward Jared Jeffries.

But after the penalties came down from the NBA office on Monday (seven players were suspended for a total of 47 games, and each franchise was fined $500,000), it was clear that the Knicks were, predictably, the big losers. Mainly because they are still the Knicks, doomed to play out the string on this miserable season, a rudderless team that would be drawing next to no one if it didn't play in the Garden, where hope, like the smell of the circus staged there every spring, never quite goes away.

The two principal protagonists, rookie Collins (suspended for six games) and second-year guard Nate Robinson (10), embody everything about the sorry state of the franchise. Collins, who began the incident by wrapping Denver guard J.R. Smith around the neck and pulling him to the floor on a breakaway, is a first-round draft dud who, through Saturday's game, had played 57 minutes this season. Robinson, who accelerated the brawl by shoving his way into the Collins-Smith pas de deux, is nothing but a 5' 9" Garden sideshow. He can run and jump but has no concept of how to play the game, passing being a particularly baffling skill. (Witness his 1.5 assist average.)

After the game Robinson characterized Collins's flagrant act as "a good, clean, hard foul" and indicated that the Nuggets had it coming because they still had their starters in a game that had been decided long before. (Cue laugh track.) During a game against the Cavaliers on Nov. 29, this pillar of sportsmanship bounced the ball off the floor in a failed dunk attempt and later said that he'd attempt the move again only if his team were up by 20.

The ultimate loser on Saturday night, though, was Knicks president and coach Isiah Thomas, the leader of this sad and dysfunctional aggregation. Angered that Nuggets coach George Karl was pouring it on—and there was little doubt that Karl was, in an immature gesture of friendship toward fired New York coach Larry Brown (though on Monday, Karl denied doing so)—Thomas asked Anthony why he was still in the game and warned him a minute or so before the brawl erupted, and clearly seen on the MSG Network broadcast, "Don't go to the basket right now." Why is a coach venting at an opposing player during a game? And why was Thomas still yakking to Anthony after the brawl instead of settling down his own players?

Though he elected not to suspend Thomas, commissioner David Stern sent a clear message with the half-million-dollar franchise fines (unprecedented for an on-court incident) that the teams and their employees are, in effect, on probation for the rest of the season. But that means little to the Knicks, who are already in a prison of their own making. Thomas's deer-in-the-headlights expression and nervous laugh during the postgame press conference only highlighted the fact that he is dog-paddling in deep water. He lamely explained that Collins took down Smith because he didn't want the home crowd to see another dunk. What the home crowd really doesn't want to see is the brand of basketball being played in the Garden, by the players Thomas chose as president and now futilely tries to coach.

Scout's Take

On Rockets center Yao Ming (right), a leading MVP candidate who at week's end had scored more than 30 points in four of his last five games:

"The difference in Yao comes down to two things: conditioning and his willingness to embrace the role of go-to guy. The book on Yao in the past was to run at him, get him in the pick-and-roll and out on the perimeter, try to wear him out. But he just doesn't wear down like he used to. Also, Jeff Van Gundy makes sure Yao touches the ball on almost every possession; they are force-feeding him in the post sometimes. Last year Tracy McGrady was still the first option, but this year Yao clearly is the guy. And he wants it. He's emotional, he's aggressive."



COLLARED Collins's foul on Smith sparked the rumble and kept Thomas (below, issuing warning) on the defensive.



[See caption above]