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Right from the tip-off, we have to admit this much about Mike D'Antoni: he is nowhere as soft as his Phoenix teams reputedly were. Yes, he makes his point quickly, but he also defends.

By benching Stephon Marbury along with Eddy Curry in his Knicks coaching debut at Madison Square Garden, D'Antoni moved the Knicks beyond Isiah Thomas's faux franchise players in the real-life equivalent of seven seconds or less.

He made a decision that was cold, if not hard, and didn't look back, or down at the end of the bench, where an emasculated Marbury sat. He didn't waver when the New York crowd experienced amnesia and mustered sympathy for one its own, chanting "We Want Steph!" or when the Knicks nearly sabotaged their energetic performance before holding on Wednesday night to beat the Miami Heat, 120-115.

"I hate it for Steph," D'Antoni said afterward. "He's done nothing wrong." This season, he meant.

D'Antoni had already declared Curry out of the rotation because "the reality is that he's not ready." But even Danilo Gallinari, the No. 1 draft pick, who had not suited up for a single minute since his injuring his back in a July summer league game, was granted a three-and-a-half-minute cameo.

The contradiction could not have been lost on D'Antoni, who is too smart to believe we are too dumb not to recognize it either. "There's a direction the franchise is going to go," he said. "And I want to keep on that direction."

His road map is apparently as far away from the Thomas era and straight toward Cleveland with a red carpet toat the feet of the anticipated free agent in 2010, LeBron James.

Understand that D'Antoni did not fall from outer space onto the Knicks' bench. In Phoenix, he did get to work with Marbury for a season and a half. He no doubt saw enough of Marbury and Curry with the Knicks the last few years to come to the conclusion that they are not tough-minded winners, or even committed professionals.

There is no looking backward for that latter commodity or for even a suitable front man to lead the march across the bridge they hope will lead to LeBron.

"I can't play everybody and have everybody be happy," D'Antoni had said earlier, with the so-sue-me frankness of a newly minted power broker.

Out of the lineup less than two years after he was anointed as Thomas's centerpiece, Curry may brood but he is not the type to openly rebel. Marbury took the high road after the benching - "If this is what it is, there's always next year," he said - but why he is still here at all speaks to the stubbornness that has served him so poorly throughout his career. Why would he not at least try to negotiate a buyout with the hope of rebuilding his credibility with a contender?

It's clear the Knicks will not pay him off in full to just go away. Be it on general principle, the bad economy or the need to save every penny for LeBron, the longtime big spender James Dolan has suddenly turned"