GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) -The New York Knicks rebounded from their embarrassing season, climbing all the way to eighth place in the Eastern Conference and earning Isiah Thomas a contract extension.
Too bad there were 19 games left. And they went horribly.
New York stumbled home with a 4-15 finish, avoiding its second straight 50-loss season by beating Charlotte on Wednesday in its season finale. But even if the record wasn't much better, the atmosphere around Madison Square Garden certainly was.
The players liked Thomas and played hard for him. That wasn't the case in 2005-06, when most of them had no use for Larry Brown, and vice versa. It seemed as if both sides were content to mail in the season, one of the worst in franchise history after the Knicks went 23-59.
Though it sometimes showed in the wrong ways, such as in the brawl with Denver in December, the Knicks showed far more passion this time around.
``I've constantly been telling all the guys that the same fight that you had and that you needed to make it to the NBA,'' Thomas said, ``I know that fire's got to be somewhere inside you still.''
Thomas only got 10 more wins, but much more effort.
``It took about a month to get used to his system and him to get used to coaching us. But once we figured that out, there were no issues this year on players not accepting their roles or Coach Thomas losing faith in players,'' forward David Lee said.
``(There was) a really good relationship between coach and player, and between front office and player this year. That's a bigger part of things that you might expect. Coming back with that familiarity next year is going to be really good for us.''
Staying healthy would help, too.
Lee, who led the Knicks in rebounding as their sixth man, played only five times after the All-Star break because of a leg injury. Jamal Crawford, the second-leading scorer, was limited to a 30-second cameo over the last 24 games because of a fractured right ankle.
Quentin Richardson had season-ending back surgery. Stephon Marbury and Renaldo Balkman both had their seasons end early, and Thomas said there were times down the stretch when he'd look at his bench and think, ``You know what you need but it's not there.''
So while the Knicks were in playoff position when Thomas was rewarded with his contract extension in early March, they didn't stay there for long.
``Our team was getting hurt, other teams were really gearing up for the playoffs and really trying to make their last push, and we just weren't really able to fall in line and really make that push,'' center Eddy Curry said.
``I think we showed when we were healthy we find a way to win. We had a good combination of guys out there, everyone knew their role. All of a sudden, guys start dropping and kind of scrambled a little bit and we just weren't able to stay in.''
Curry's improvement was the best news for the Knicks, as he went from mediocre to occasionally dominant during his second season in New York. He averaged a career-high 19.5 points, shot nearly 58 percent and missed only one game, showing none of the health concerns that made Chicago trade him.
The Knicks need Curry to be good, because he's costing them a fortune.
The Bulls got the Knicks' lottery pick, which ended up being No. 2 overall, last season, and the right to swap spots again, meaning New York has no shot at getting the top pick.
But listening to the Knicks, they don't sound like they are far away - even though they haven't won a playoff game since 2001.
Thomas said Thursday that the Knicks are in good shape and he wouldn't aggressively pursue any trades or top free agents. He added he has no plans to use the mid-level exception - though it hasn't done much good in landing Jerome James and Jared Jeffries the past two summers, anyway.
Instead, Thomas seems content to keep the Knicks together, realizing there is no quick fix that will turn a losing team into a title contender.
``There really is no fast track,'' he said. ``You can talk about all these other teams and everything else, but at the same time I know the history of this league and I know the history of the teams, and maybe, maybe there was one that did it on the fast track. Maybe.''

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