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Despite a 14-month layoff from NBA competition, Latrell Sprewell only needed half an exhibition game to stop smelling like a cedar closet and stop playing moth ball.

Before I could finish a conversation at the concession stand and return to press row, he'd amassed the majority of his 17 third-quarter points without a miss. Nothing but windpipe!

All of them resulted within the flow of the Knicks offense and what the Nets defense gave it, and turned an eight-point deficit into a two-point lead.

"Oh, man, can this guy play," I thought to myself. "He makes it look too easy. Obviously, last season's choking incident was all P.J. Carlesimo's fault."

Think about it:

If Sprewell can harvest a total of 27 points in 30 minutes while operating at probably 60 percent peak efficiency, imagine how much more versatile the Knicks are going to be this season . . . as long as Patrick Ewing is still effective enough to command double coverage from good teams.

Once Sprewell regains his repertoire, imagine how much more entertaining they'll be . . . as long as Ewing isn't so effective he insists every other play end with him.

If Sprewell, in his first appearance as a Knick at Madison Square Garden, wasn't noticeably affected by staggering, self-inflicted emotional scars, imagine how petty playoff pressure will seem in comparison.

In actuality, dominating a 12-minute quadrant, despite being in drydock since early December '97, was the easy part of Wednesday night's performance. If not for him, at least, it was the easy-to-understand part for anyone intimately familiar with his intrepid presence and stunning skills.

What's downright mystifying, is Sprewell's alien ability to charm the antagonist right out of New York's mass media.

Then again, I should've known from experience how impressive and appealing he can be when he looks you straight in the eye and tries to explain himself and his uncivilized conduct as a Warrior. Having communicated with him at length on two occasions last spring, I shouldn't be surprised Sprewell is smart enough to say sane things and act like a human being when face-to-face with New York's parole board.

Still, who would've figured Sprewell could've won us over this fast, if ever -- after being found guilty in so many court rooms, named as a defendant on so many blotters and having starred in so many horror stories?

Clearly, Sprewell isn't playing fair. The engaging smile. Subdued style. Bewitching serenity. We've been disarmed and I don't hear anybody complaining.

Think about it some more:

Sprewell's legs, lungs and instincts aren't close to being in top form. Barring injury, two weeks or a month from now, he should recapture all three. If you liked what you saw in the third quarter against the Nets, wait'll he shakes off the rust and his wind starts to gust.

Imagine then how much we'll enjoy being exploited.

Go East, old K.J.

In his quest to stay West, Kevin Johnson, who maintains homes in Phoenix and Sacramento, continues to dream about joining a title contender. Again, we're talking the Rockets, whose inexperienced backcourt could use K.J.'s savvy but whose frontcourt flaunts undeclared enemy Charles Barkley.

Coach Rudy Tomjanovich apparently can be tempted. Sources say he nearly pulled the trigger a couple of weeks ago on a trade that would've sent a re-signed Mario Elie and Matt Maloney to the Knicks for Chris Childs.

Naturally, the Sonics also appeal to K.J. However, the possibility of rejoining Paul Westphal is ever-so-slight considering how their Suns' relationship ended.

Meanwhile, the Pistons are courting K.J. on a daily basis, offering a one-year deal for the veteran $1 million minimum. While he hasn't rejected their advances, he won't commit to them, either.

That's strange considering the two parties are a flawless fit. K.J. almost certainly would start, moving Lindsey Hunter over to shooting guard (he'd still defend playmakers), where he's better suited. At the very least, K.J., 33 in March, would control Detroit's attack when Grant Hill is out of the game and be a special someone it conspicuously lacks.

In case you missed it, Barkley notched 22 points and 11 rebounds the first time he touched the ball after his mini-PGA tour. As I've often said, golfers are the world's best-conditioned athletes.

Strickland sits, waits

Contrary to NBC reports, Rod Strickland has not died.

Sources say David Falk is calling around the league trying to arrange a trade for his client. Fact is, if the Wizards aren't going to make him happy they'd be crazy to leverage him into accepting less. A trade might be best for everyone concerned. Or just tell Strickland it's over and sign Sherman Douglas.

Why invest $30 million in someone over three years if they're guaranteed to go into the tank? Anyone who knows anything about Strickland knows that's the stance he'll adopt if he feels underpaid (relative to contribution and market value) or crossed.


Cedric Ceballos rebuffed interest by Knicks, Magic and Hawks to re-sign with Mavericks in order to retain Larry Bird rights. . . . Vitaly Potapenko is playing like he knows he's being shopped. . . . Bulls have decided to fill out their roster with anyone who turned down the Bears job. . . . At the risk of overreacting, after listening to Charlie Ward's pregame speech to fans, it's clear the Knicks point god has no future as a TV evangelist.

Marcus Camby (1-4, one board, 17 minutes) was such a lost soul in the Knick-Net game he posted up once on defense. Must have thought John Calipari was going to run an old school play for him.

"His teammates are making a mistake getting on his back," Calipari said. "I told Jeff (Van Gundy) he's the kind of guy who needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the (butt), to get the most out of him. They need to find things he can do instead of harping on what he can't do."

If I were Hornet owner George Shinn, I'd give Glen Rice the extension and maximum money he wants, then get rid of him as soon as possible. You know very well Rice would've waited until after the season to have elbow surgery had management caved to his demands. That elbow sure didn't look like it was bothering him when he drained some threes in last month's All-Star game in Atlantic City.

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

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