NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks wanted to win this one. Really, they did.
Well, kinda sorta really.
It looked like they wanted to win it when coach Mike D'Antoni made the decision to reinsert Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups into the game with 6:33 remaining and a 21-point deficit had been (thanks to a 26-2 run by the Chicago Bulls to begin the second half) whittled down to 12.
But just two minutes and one second later, the smarter half of D'Antoni's brain took over and he took both players out, resigned to the fact that this game truly was meaningless in the big scheme of things, and it was time to shut down those two players.
The real thing happens this weekend, and this was no time to take a chance on having a freak injury (like the one that happened to Chicago's Ronnie Brewer in the second quarter when he sprained his thumb diving for a loose ball) impact the most important game the franchise will play in seven years.
"We wanted to win. We wanted to play well, and I thought the first half we played real well," D'Antoni said after the Knicks dropped a 103-90 decision to the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls. "I was going to leave Carmelo and Chauncey out, but then you kind of want to be competitive, and it got the best of me. They were a little stiff, so I should have left them out, but Chicago's a good team and they keep coming at you in waves."
But Chicago will not be a concern of the Knicks unless both teams make it to the Eastern Conference finals, and no team other than the Boston Celtics will matter for the next two weeks as New York prepares for its first playoff appearance since 2004.
New York will wrap up the regular season in Boston on Wednesday night, perhaps getting Amare Stoudemire some run after he missed the past three games with a sprained ankle, but the finale will be even more of a doesn't-matter game than Tuesday night's affair was.
What can the Knicks take from this loss, which snapped their seven-game winning streak?
For one thing, Bill Walker made three 3-pointers and scored 18 points in 22 minutes for the best game he has had in what has amounted to a nine-game tryout to try to crack D'Antoni's playoff rotation.
"We'll test him a little in the playoffs, and if he plays well we'll keep playing him, and if not we'll move on," D'Antoni said.
Walker, who came to the Knicks from the Celtics in last season's Nate Robinson trade, has made 58 3-pointers in 60 games, only 26 fewer than the total accumulated by Landry Fields in 1,750 more minutes. Walker is shooting .387 from behind the arc, while Fields is at .393.
"I'm playing with more energy, I've been trying to work on changing my game, learning how to be a guard. It's been a long process for me but I feel I'm getting better," Walker said. "It's stuff like handling the ball more. I played small forward and power forward my whole life, and to make an adjustment to playing guard when you're in the league is a big jump."
Most of the rest of what the Knicks could take from this game was negative.
They were outrebounded 51-33 (Carlos Boozer accounted for 22 of them) and allowed the Bulls to score 19 second-chance points; they were 0-for-10 on 3-pointers in the third quarter before Walker made one on their final possession of the period; and they looked about as bad as they have in a month during the 26-2 run to open the third quarter that put the Bulls in control.
Again, not that it really matters all that much.
"I'm not a real big believer in shutting it down too early," D'Antoni said beforehand. "We'll see what we do tomorrow, but today is a big game for us. We want to play well and use this to keep going. And also, today's Tuesday, and you have to get to Sunday, and you don't want too much time to go by without playing the right way."
They played the right way for about 24 minutes Tuesday, and there were even some boos at the end that made you wonder what kind of fans could be that flighty -- until you discovered that the boos were directed toward Scottie Pippen, who was sitting in the stands.
The time to boo the Knicks has already passed (it came during the six-game losing streak that preceded the seven-game winning streak), and if catcalls are called for it'll only be at the end of Game 4 if the Knicks are about to get swept. That's what happened to them the last time they played in the postseason, but that was ages ago, when Stephon Marbury was the fresh new face of the team.
In 10 days or so, the Knicks will finally be back at Madison Square Garden, and it'll be no time to kinda sorta want to win.
But the Knicks earned the right to kinda sorta mail this one in, so they get a pass on the final result.