Mike D'Antoni deserves a pass no longer

NEW YORK -- The scoreboard is the game's only infallible judge, and it said Mike D'Antoni had pushed the wrong human buttons. He ripped his team the other night, defended it against chanting fans the next day and then watched his New York Knicks rent their cherished building to Kobe Bryant, who was free to do with it as he pleased.

Go ahead and give D'Antoni another pass; he's used to getting them. These were the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers after all, led by Bryant, a transcendent star with a credible chance to end up as a greater winner than Michael Jordan.

Nobody could expect the Knicks to defeat the much bigger, much better Lakers, right?

Only this is the NBA, where even sub-mediocre teams are supposed to win -- or at least compete like hell -- at home, no matter the identity of the visiting team. You might have heard the Cleveland Cavaliers won a game at home Friday night. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers, the same crew that just embarrassed the Knicks on the Garden floor.

D'Antoni called his team on its gutless performance Wednesday night, then spent Thursday applying ice to the wound, informing the home fans who were chanting for Carmelo Anthony that his players didn't appreciate the sentiment or the sound.

It's always a dangerous game for a coach to play, telling the paying customers how to react to your unsatisfying product, but play it D'Antoni did. Maybe he was just trying to protect his guys. Maybe he was letting the Knicks know he was still on their side.

Either way, this Lakers game would be something of a referendum under the Friday night lights. Would the Knicks respond to their coach? Would they at least make the Lakers bleed a little before bowing to their overwhelming size and skill?

As it turned out, the Knicks played an inspired brand of basketball for four full minutes, taking an eight-point lead on Raymond Felton's alley and Danilo Gallinari's oop. Nobody was chanting for Anthony then. The Garden felt as alive as it did in the '90s, when Phil Jackson's Bulls tried to fly over the punishing likes of Ewing and Mason and Oak.

But then Bryant became Bryant and Jordan at the same time, draining three 3-pointers before facing up Gallinari near the Lakers' bench, freezing him with three crossover dribbles and then a between-the-legs dribble for good measure before rising up to make a jumper that left the Garden crowd going oooooooh.

Bryant nailed an absurd turnaround over Felton to beat the buzzer, his 18th and 19th points of the first quarter. Bryant finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds in fewer than 29 minutes of play, and his Lakers won by a 113-96 count.

"Kobe definitely took us out of our game," D'Antoni explained. "Took our heart a little bit."

Yes, their heart. Los Angeles was coming off an emotional victory in Boston the night before, the Knicks were desperate after losing 10 of their previous 14 games, and yet a predictable flurry of Bryant baskets was enough to take their heart.

D'Antoni wasn't about to trash his team's effort for a second straight game, not when that kind of talk ultimately gets a coach fired. (It is a coach's core responsibility, of course, to field an inspired team.) So D'Antoni focused this time on the Knicks' on-court intellect, or lack thereof.

"We're not playing real smart," he said.

But here's the thing: D'Antoni isn't coaching real smart, either, and it has little to do with his decision to bench Timofey Mozgov and his 18 points in the fourth quarter against the Clippers.

This isn't last year or the year before. The Knicks are better than the basketball they've played across the past 15 games, a period that includes home losses to three teams -- the Clippers, Sacramento and Phoenix -- that aren't among the Western Conference's top eight.

Now the Knicks are a .500 team, a monument to mediocrity. D'Antoni hasn't convinced them to play with urgency or toughness, and if they make the playoffs this year it will say more about the wretched underbelly of the East than it will about the inner resolve of the Knicks.

"We have not had our swagger for the past two and a half weeks," said Amare Stoudemire, who called Saturday night's game in New Jersey "a must win."

Yeah, it would be a good idea if the Knicks showed up for that one.

"Obviously we're not satisfied at all with how it's going," D'Antoni said. "We've got to find ourselves real quick."

Though a conspicuous courtside guest, Rex Ryan, spent halftime guaranteeing a Super Bowl title next year, D'Antoni wasn't promising anything at the postgame mike.

Finishing up his alleged last trip to the Garden, Jackson came to the losing coach's aid. "They've made strides this year," he said. "They're playing better ball. They look like they are definitely a playoff team.

"Everything was going great for them about a month ago ... and it's been a little bit harder right now. But they're going to get it back together again."

Bryant also called the Knicks' future "bright," but delivered a Melo-to-the-Garden chant of his own. The fans? They actually listened to D'Antoni, kept the Melo stuff off limits and cut the home team a break.

The Knicks rewarded them with another non-effort, and a 22-point deficit in the middle of the fourth quarter that sent the loyal customers home.

What now? D'Antoni had his excuses lined up in Years 1 and 2, when Donnie Walsh handed him a roster designed to fail. But the Year 3 Knicks have some legitimate talent and know-how, and they haven't suffered any crippling injuries to boot.

So Walsh shouldn't be the only Cablevision employee feeling a little heat right now. Remember, Mike D'Antoni is making $6 million a year. He needs to start living up to his end of that deal.