NEW YORK (AP) -There were a few minutes left when the boos started during a recent New York Knicks exhibition game.
That's a few minutes left BEFORE the game.
Isiah Thomas' name had just been announced during pregame introductions, and the reaction from the Madison Square Garden crowd wasn't surprising. Disgusted by the accusations against the coach in a sexual harassment trial and fed up with the string of losing seasons since his arrival, fans let the beleaguered Thomas have it.
The harsh treatment may continue as long as the losing does, so the Knicks are confronted with a different type of challenge as they enter the season: Can they win enough to get the fans off their coach's back?
``I think we're going to be a good basketball team this year,'' Thomas said earlier this month. ``I thought last year, before we were injured, we were a good basketball team. I don't see how we won't be a good basketball team this year.''
Thomas was in good spirits that day, a rarity in recent weeks. He has otherwise often seemed like a man defeated - which is exactly what he was in court on the day training camp opened without him.
A jury ruled that Thomas and Madison Square Garden had sexually harassed former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders, and Thomas was accused during the trial of using profanity around women and making derogatory statements about white season ticket holders.
The lawsuit was the last straw for many New Yorkers who already wondered why Thomas still has a job in the first place after the Knicks have failed to win a playoff game since his arrival as team president in December 2003. But even if the fans have given up on Thomas, the 15 players in the locker room still believe.
``He really knows talent,'' guard Jamal Crawford said. ``He feels like when he gets guys together, he can put them on the same page. He feels like he has the skills to do that. A lot of guys can't do that. If anybody can do it, Isiah can do it. He demands respect. He treats everybody the same and that commands respect.''
Thomas often did that with an engaging personality and a frequent smile or laugh. But he's been missing those around the media, choosing instead to answer in short sentences or cliches, sometimes looking at the floor instead of the questioner.
He coached last season under a mandate from owner James Dolan to show ``evident progress'' or be fired, and he responded by leading the Knicks to a 10-win improvement from the previous season, keeping them in the playoff race until the final month and earning a contract extension.
Neither Thomas nor the Knicks say his job is in jeopardy again as a result of the verdict, but only Dolan can decide, and he hasn't spoken since the trial. Still, knowing his actions helped cost his boss at least $11.6 million, it would probably help Thomas' standing if he delivers a winning team.
Luckily for Thomas, the part of his summer before the trial went well.
He made a good trade on draft night, picking up power forward Zach Randolph and swingman Fred Jones from Portland. Randolph averaged 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds last season, and could be even better against the weaker competition he'll face in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks' summer league team then went undefeated in Las Vegas, with Nate Robinson winning MVP honors. Renaldo Balkman also played on that team, and those two along with David Lee will make up the core of what should be an energetic and productive bench.
With the potential of a dominant frontcourt tandem of Randolph and Eddy Curry, who averaged 19.5 points last season, and enough other scoring from Crawford and point guard Stephon Marbury, the Knicks are capable of making a leap up the standings.
But Thomas already identified Boston, New Jersey and defending champion Toronto as the elite of the Atlantic Division. With at least three teams from the Central and another two or three from the Southeast also looking strong, there's no guarantee New York will be a playoff club.
``We're the underdogs right now,'' Randolph said. ``We've got to work our way up, keep on getting better and don't worry about all those other teams. We've got to worry about ourselves.''
The Knicks haven't won a playoff game since 2001, so Thomas isn't the only one in New York with a hole in his resume. Only the Grizzlies, who have never won a postseason game since coming into the league in 1996, and Atlanta (1999) have gone longer without a single playoff victory.
Crawford (452) and Curry (442) are the active leaders among regular-season games played without ever appearing in a playoff one, and Crawford says they've got to change that this year.
He also realizes something else must be different. With the trial coming just a year after the team's firing and refusal to pay the remainder of Larry Brown's contract, the Knicks have found ways to keep themselves newsworthy. But it's been a long time since they were relevant on the court, a problem the players want to do something about.
``I think it's definitely important,'' Crawford said. ``Our fans have been really, really patient and everybody in the organization's been patient, but it's time to really step up.''

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