Thursday March 27th, 2008

I can't watch anymore. My eyes hurt. That's not basketball. It can't be basketball.

That can't be the Knicks. That can't be the same team that was once considered one of the NBA's flagship franchises. That can't be the same team for which guys like Dave DeBusschere, Clyde Frazier and Patrick Ewing once played.

That can't be Miami, either. A Pat Riley-coached team can't be that bad. I walked onto the court an hour before the start of the game and six Miami players were warming up. I didn't recognize any of them. It wasn't until Chris Quinn took the floor a few minutes later that I had proof that this was the real Miami Heat, not a group of rec leaguers who borrowed Heat jerseys and managed to get on the court.

(And it took Chris Quinn to prove it.)

It's sad, really, to see two of the NBA's marquee franchises in such dire straights. Miami has been decimated by injury this season, from Dwyane Wade's cranky knee and shoulder to Shaquille O'Neal's aging body. Now, it's Miami's fault for drafting with Ed Tapscott-like effectiveness (Wayne Simien, Dorell Wright and Daequan Cook were three of their recent first-round picks), but it's not Riley's fault Wade's body couldn't hold up or that O'Neal aged about as gracefully as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream.

The Knicks? That mess is entirely Isiah Thomas' fault. Thomas drafted, signed and coached every player on New York's moribund roster. He handed out the mid-level exception like it was a taxi voucher, giving Jared Jeffries (2.8 points per game this season) and Jerome James (five games played this season) fat $30 million contracts.

He's coaching them to lose, too. The worst-kept secret in the NBA is that the Knicks are tanking games in an effort to improve their draft position. You hear that, David Stern? Knicks owner James Dolan would like nothing better than to start the Donnie Walsh era, which reportedly will begin as soon as the regular season comes to a merciful close, with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Would Derrick Rose look good in a Knicks uniform? Would Michael Beasley?

(Memo to Beasley and Rose: Stay in school.)

Thomas certainly thinks so. Whether Thomas has a backdoor deal worked out with Dolan that would guarantee he is either a) retained as head coach or b) paid the balance of his contract is unclear. Speculation ran rampant through the Garden on Wednesday night, with rumors ranging from Thomas being reassigned to a scouting position to his being fired altogether. Regardless, Thomas clearly has decided to mail in the season.

His decision to bench leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Zach Randolph against Western Conference bottom-feeders Memphis and Minnesota last weekend was, to borrow a line from Gregg Popovich, beyond comprehension. Against Memphis, Randolph was on the active list but dressed in street clothes, meaning if a fight broke out (not out of the question with the Knicks) and seven New York players were ejected, Randolph would have to go back in the locker room and change into a uniform.

"Everyone knows what they are trying to do," an Eastern Conference executive said. "It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for them and it's embarrassing for the league."

Thomas' defense? "You always try to win games," he said. "But when you play young players, they are going to make mistakes."

Personally, I could see Thomas running the Knicks' scouting department. Historically, Zeke's eye for talent has been sharp. He drafted Marcus Camby in Toronto and scored with late first-round picks David Lee and Nate Robinson in New York (the jury is still out on Renaldo Balkman, Mardy Collins and Wilson Chandler, while Randolph Morris, a Thomas signee last season, will be playing in the D-League next year). Not that he would accept a job like that. Not in New York, anyway. His ego is way too big for that.

In all likelihood, Thomas will be gone next season and the Knicks will be Walsh's problem. The Bronx-born Walsh will inherit a bloated payroll, a meddling owner, an absurd media policy that does more harm than good and a locker room that measures its morale somewhere between the 2004 Yankees and the guy who directed Gigli.

Good luck to him.

Oh, by the way, the Knicks beat the Heat 103-96 in overtime.

Not that anyone noticed.

• Riley finally fired back at Shaq on Wednesday night. The former Heat center, who has a history of targeting his former employers after his departure, took a few shots at Miami in The Boston Globe.

"I love playing for this coach and I love playing with these guys," said O'Neal. "We have professionals who know what to do. No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I'm actually on a team again."

"It's sad that he said those things," said Riley before the game. "It's sad that he's got to do that. I don't know why he's saying those things ... we sent him to utopia and we were left with the carnage."

Riley also took exception to O'Neal's effusive praise for the Suns medical staff, which was perceived as a backhanded slap at the treatment Shaq received in Miami.

"That's an insult," said Riley. "We hired two therapists for Shaquille. It's a shame he would insult them like that. That upsets me more than anything."

• USA Basketball thought they found the missing links to a gold medal when they added sharpshooters Michael Redd and Mike Miller to the roster. But while Redd, who shot 45.3 percent from three-point range for the tournament, came as advertised, Miller (38.0 percent) struggled. Still, Miller believes he can be an asset in Beijing over the summer. "I would love to be a part of it," said Miller. "I can't stress that enough. But there are a lot of guys out there who can shoot. I'm just going to try and go out there, work hard and make it tough for them not to pick me."

• Speaking of Memphis, what do you do if you are the Grizzlies and you secure the number one pick in the draft? Do you take Beasley and fill a position you are weak at? Or do you succumb to public pressure and take Rose, the University of Memphis guard who plays the same position as Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Javaris Crittenton. Something to think about.

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