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KNICKS' OFFER IGNITED DEAL FOR MUTOMBO

In the final box following the expiration of the trade deadline, the majority of the participants in the busiest February traffic day in NBA history achieved their goals by either enriching their vein of athleticism, size, potential or salary cap flexibility.

Meanwhile, the Knicks received extra credit for insisting the Hawks acquire someone (all-star center/forward Theo Ratliff) they never thought could be sweet-talked away from the 76ers.

By offering Marcus Camby and Glen Rice for Dikembe Mutombo, the Knicks ignited Larry Brown's elite outfit (FYI: Philly's magic number to clinch home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs is 21) to make such an unprecedented move.

Truth be told, had not Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts shamefully insisted on expanding the package (for both sides) and including the contracts of Luc Longley ($20.5 million, 3 years left after this) and Travis Knight ($12M, 3 years), the Knicks may very well have beaten out the fast-vanishing front-runners for the league's most dominating rebounder/shot changer.

If nothing else, at least the Knicks proved useful to the Hawks. That is, if you feel two injured replacements is sufficient compensation for Mt. Mutombo.

Ratliff, I suspect, may have lost his motivation to return sooner than later from wrist surgery. Not only did the trade expel him from the penthouse and exile him to the outhouse, it cost him an all-but-guaranteed extra $1 million. Sources say Ratliff would've earned that bonus when the 42-14 76ers win their 55th game.

Shockingly, Toni Kukoc already has asked out for at least the next three games. After flying to Atlanta and passing the team physical, the fragile forward, who never looked more assertive defensively and on the boards the last week or two, decided his back suddenly needed rest.

The Kitty Hawks should've dealt him to the Jazz (Byron Russell and a fringe player) this past Thursday when they had the offer. No wonder the Kitty Hawks have adopted a new rallying cry, "Wait 'till the next millennium."

The moment Mutombo was informed he'd been dealt, he bolted for LAX, arriving in Philly at 3 a.m. Four hours later, he took a physical (not passing it until 7 p.m., shortly before game time against the Pistons), took center stage in the 76ers' noon news conference, then hopped a charter for Detroit.

Exhausted from his travel and mind trip, Mutombo settled into the Auburn Hills hotel around 4 p.m. An hour later, he was on the team bus headed to The Palace. When the Sixers reached the locker room, Brown stroked his lifeline to his first trip to the NBA Finals. "Hey, if you feel too tired to play, you've got my permission to sit this one out."

"Larry says I don't have to play if I don't feel up to it," Mutombo notified Allen Iverson.

"Then why the bleep did you show up for the game?" goosed Iverson.

"Good point," agreed Mutombo who proceeded to go for 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks as the Sixers slapped around Joe Dumars' crew by 21, their sixth straight victim. This is the same arena where the Knicks lost Wednesday, if you're keeping score.

If you're wondering why Iverson bothered to show up in you-know-who's home state, he went for 43 points and, count 'em, 10 rebounds. "Let's see Eminem do that," he double-dared.

Mavs tried to get Sonics' Baker

The Nuggets (trying to use the Heat as a conduit, offering Raef LaFrentz and James Posey as inducement while Miami's primary lure was Brian Grant) and the Mavericks remained in the hunt for Mutombo until the 76ers won the bidding. At which time, the Mavs tried to obtain head case Vin Baker from the Sonics, according to a Seattle newspaper.

In most cases, bad decisions lead to last decisions. Wally Walker, on the other hand, is allowed to make as many errors of omission and commission as he pleases with no accountability, only promotions, pay raises and a piece of the team under the new owner.

When the team president rejected the Mavs' outlandish proposal to alleviate the Sonics of Baker's remaining 5-year, $67.5M guarantee, Easy Mark Cuban had just enough time to pawn off a load of slop -- exempting Courtney Alexander and Etan Thomas -- on the Wizards for Juwan Howard.

Column castigator Frank Drucker claims Michael Jordan deserves a free presidential pardon for finding someone to take Howard's $39M over the next two seasons for basically dead wood.

While that's true (Easy Mark anted up the customary $3M that's attached to every one of his trades), I predict Juwan will prosper in his new environment under the protection of Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash: The Fab Four.

Jordan, indeed, lightened his financial load, but also (as hard as it is to spit out) surrendered the franchise's most valuable asset. In view of Washington's retching record, that may not be saying much. Still, Howard averages 17 points and eight rebounds and provides Dallas with a desperately-needed post-up presence.

Now that the pressure to play up to his obscene contract is officially terminated, Howard can relax in his new-found anonymity and revel in the team's success. And we can start judging him again solely on his numbers each evening rather than expectations based on decimal points.

Carter (63 minutes) is over injury

Subject: Kings beat the Raptors in three OTs.

Thanks to the 119-118 verdict, Sacramento has won four out of five sans Chris Webber coming into today's high-nooner with the Knicks.

How great were the Kings? They survived 38 points and 10 rebounds by Vince Carter, who witnessed 63 minutes of daylight, then swore to David Stern he's too injured to strut his stuff in next year's All-Star weekend jamboree.

(Peter Vecsey is an analyst on NBC's NBA coverage and a columnist for the New York Post.)

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