Here is Isiah Thomas on Saturday night, his Knicks being run out of the Garden and out onto Eighth Ave. again, this time by the Denver Nuggets.
Here is Thomas with a minute and 32 seconds left, right before the stupid playground fight between the Knicks and Nuggets is about to start, and he is doing all he has really done since coming to this city: smiling and talking. He can't win the game. He just talks one.
On the television broadcast of the game, announcer Mike Breen wonders why Thomas is smiling, then points out that the coach of the Knicks is talking to Denver's Carmelo Anthony, who has been the best player on the court all night, an attraction who nearly sold out the Garden for a change, something Thomas' Knicks cannot legitimately do on their own.
According to published reports, confirmed for me yesterday by somebody from the Nuggets, Anthony told his coaches after the game that Thomas was telling him he better "stay out of the paint." And that he, Anthony, should tell his teammates to stay out of the paint. In basketball, that means stay away from the basket, because if you go near the basket, somebody is going to foul you and foul you hard.
If Thomas said it, it is the same as a threat, and it means that when David Stern, the NBA commissioner, starts handing out suspensions to the Knicks and Nuggets for the ugly scene at the Garden on Saturday night, Isiah Thomas should be first in line.
Stern can do something today that James Dolan, Thomas' boss, is unwilling to do, which means tell Thomas to go away, even if it is for only a few games, even if it will probably help the Knicks, since it turns out Thomas is about as good coaching this Knicks team as he was assembling it.
Carmelo Anthony might have finished everything Saturday night by throwing a sucker-punch at Mardy Collins when the whole thing, which had already spilled into the second row of seats, should have been over. The real suckers are people who believe Anthony is the headline here because he was the headliner of the game, the leading scorer in the league. This incident doesn't come close to playing out the way it does if Collins doesn't throw down Denver's J.R. Smith the way he does with 1:15 left, if Nate Robinson of the Knicks, barking away, doesn't then try to punk everybody in sight.
If what Anthony told the Nuggets is true - and why would he make it up? - then the coach of the Knicks is the one who put everything in motion Saturday night, like a baseball manager telling his pitcher to throw at somebody.
The night before, Collins had come off the bench to commit a flagrant foul as the Knicks were getting blown out in Indianapolis. Now Thomas puts him into this game with just over two minutes to go, and then a half-minute later, Thomas is talking and talking to Anthony while Marcus Camby is shooting free throws. Then Collins is bringing down Smith from behind the way football safeties bring down wide receivers in the open field.
Smith gets up, good and hot at being cheap-shooted this way. Right away, Robinson is on him, as if Smith was the one who had committed the flagrant foul. Then the two of them are flying into the stands, sending patrons and photographers flying. You wonder how James Dolan would feel about all this if the action had happened on the other side of the basket, if Robinson and Smith had ended up in Dolan's lap, or his wife's.
But again: According to the coach of the Knicks, this was Denver's fault. They were running up the score, as if that justifies the shot Collins gave Smith. They had their best players on the court when they were ahead 20 points in the end. Maybe that is why there was not a single sentence of accountability from Thomas afterward. But, then, there never is.
He's got the highest payroll in the league, the Knicks have lost 150 games since he took over running the team three years ago, the current record is 9-17, the team is drawing its smallest crowds in over a decade. No matter. He never takes any blame, and Dolan never assigns any, and when Thomas gets to the interview room, he points a finger at the other team and says, They did it!
"We had surrendered," Thomas says of the incident later, still smiling afterward, laughing one time.
All season long, the Knicks lose, and then Thomas talks about how hard they fought afterward. Now he tries to make surrender sound heroic. He doesn't just talk, he talks out of both sides of his mouth.
Thomas will deny everything today. He would deny the record, if he could. He will talk about how the old Knicks used to get into fights all the time. They sure did. And most of the time it cost them big. At least those teams, in the '90s, fought for the title, not to save face on another lost night at the Garden.
"They're embarrassing us," Thomas kept saying in the fourth quarter, according to his own guys. "They're embarrassing us."
The Knicks, Isiah Thomas' Knicks, don't need the other team to do that. They do it to themselves, and to the Garden, all the time.
Originally published on December 18, 2006