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Houston: 'This is a huge step'

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Allan Houston took what he called "a huge step" Friday toward his comeback, participating in a half-court scrimmage and setting next weekend as the possible date of his return from prolonged knee problems.

"It felt better than I thought it would. It was the first day I
did a contact drill in I don't know how long," said Houston, the
highest-paid and longest-tenured member of the New York Knicks.

Houston 13 of the final 14 regular-season games and the playoffs last season due to soreness that developed
after he returned from microfracture surgery on his left knee.

The date of his return has been this season's longest-running
mystery surrounding the Knicks, who entered the weekend in a
virtual three-way tie for first place in the Atlantic Division.

Jamal Crawford has replaced Houston as the starting shooting
guard, averaging 16.6 points but shooting below 40 percent from the
field.

Coach Lenny Wilkens said Crawford would remain the starter, although he envisioned using Crawford, Houston and Stephon Marbury together on the floor for periodic stretches.

"I'm not saying that would be our steady diet, but there are
times in a game when a team is small and you can take advantage of
it," Wilkens said.

Houston said he was hoping to return sometime during the
four-game road trip to Charlotte, Memphis, New Orleans and
Washington that begins a week from Saturday.

"I'd like to play the first one at home, but it really depends
on the progress," said Houston, who opted not to compete in the
team's full-court scrimmage. "My legs feel better then they've
felt since I've been here."

Wilkens said Houston's timing appeared to be off, and Houston said he was tentative at first when it came to pushing off with his knees.

Whenever he returns, Houston will provide a legitimate outside shooting threat to relieve some of the defensive pressure against Marbury on the perimeter and against Kurt Thomas in the low post. But he'll also have to adjust to coming off the bench for the first time since early in his career while trying to mesh with an almost
entirely new set of teammates following team president Isiah
Thomas' wholesale changes over the past 11 months.

With a career average of 17.5 points, Houston was the Knicks' leading scorer in four of the past five seasons.

Fans have been impatient with his slow recovery and booed him at an open practice during training camp.

"This is a huge step for me physically and mentally," Houston
said of practicing. "It was an exciting thing for me."