Updated: March 8, 2007, 1:49 AM ET

Knicks skip advance course

NEW YORK -- Go ahead, blame Stephon Marbury. Blame him for the missed free throw with 0.9 seconds left in the New York Knicks' 100-99 loss Tuesday to Seattle, or the long 3-point attempt on the possession before that led to a long rebound and a game-winning triple by the Sonics' Rashard Lewis.

Marbury's game-ending plays will be dissected and analyzed in spite of a game-high 40-point effort that rallied the Knicks from an 18-point deficit -- the third straight contest in which he's put the team on his back. But focusing on the ending ignores the real culprit here.

New York didn't lose -- and in the process, miss out on a chance to move up to the No. 8 spot in the East -- because of Marbury. It didn't lose because David Lee was out with a sprained ankle either, nor did the Knicks fall because they missed 14 free throws, as damaging as it was.

No, the Knicks lost because they didn't show up until the third quarter. In the first 26 minutes, it looked like Seattle was the team clawing for a playoff spot and New York was the one playing out the string. The Sonics' 62-44 lead two minute in the third quarter forced the Knicks to play a perfect game over the final 22 minutes.

To their credit, they nearly did it -- including earning a whopping 22-0 advantage in fourth-quarter free-throw attempts. But the deficit was too great to overcome and as a result any mistake -- like a missed free throw, for instance -- turned into a calamity.

What made it so frustrating for the New Yorkers was that the early struggles came as the result of serial mental errors. Foremost on the list was Channing Frye, who passed up multiple open jumpers, made a ridiculous goaltend on a contested Johan Petro fling that seemed to have little chance, and took a horrible foul on Ray Allen 90 feet from the basket near the end of the first half to give Seattle two free points. Knicks coach Isiah Thomas mercifully pulled the plug on his evening 3:15 into the second half, yanking him for Malik Rose to help kick-start New York's comeback.

However, Frye was hardly alone. When the Knicks briefly cut Seattle's lead to 10 and the Madison Square Garden crowd got into the game for the only time in the first half, Quentin Richardson threw an outlet pass to his imaginary friend in Section 79 to end the rally with a thud. Then there was Eddy Curry, who seemed to have trouble recognizing Seattle's double-team even though it came from the same place every time. He ended up with five first-half turnovers and several other near-misses.

Finally, there was Jared Jeffries, who delivered a 0-point, 0-rebound, 0-for-4 from the line first half. He also made perhaps the worst play of the game in the third quarter, passing up a wide open 3-pointer from the corner to throw a pass under the basket to Nick Collison -- which would have worked out great if Collison didn't play for the Sonics. That sequence led to a thunderous dunk by Chris Wilcox and Seattle's biggest lead of the game.

"When you're fighting an uphill battle throughout the whole game, it takes a lot of energy," said Marbury. "Every mistake that you make at the end of the game is magnified. We can't allow ourselves to get put in that situation.

"We didn't play the way we normally play at the beginning of the game. Especially at home, we normally come out attacking at both ends, and tonight we didn't do that."

And as a result, the Knicks dropped one at home against a team that had won six road games the entire season. So if New York does fall short of the playoffs, it's sure to look back at tonight as the one that got away.

But Knicks fans shouldn't lament Marbury's missed free throw or any of his other plays down the stretch. The real puzzling part wasn't the ending, but the beginning. It boggles the mind how the Knicks could come out so flat in a game of such obvious importance.

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