SEATTLE — Jamal Crawford was mostly ho-hum as he sat on a scorer's table and chatted before his New York Knicks' annual visit to play his hometown SuperSonics.

But one mention of how the middling Eastern Conference somehow hasn't completely buried New York from playoff contention, despite the Knicks entering Saturday a season-worst 18 games under .500 at 14-32, brought a wide smile to the face of New York's leading scorer.

The Knicks began the final game of their five-game Western swing losers of four straight— yet were just 5 1/2 games behind New Jersey for the eighth and final playoff spot with 36 games remaining.

Is this a great conference, or what?

"To have 30-some games left and be five, six games out, it's possible," Crawford said, beaming over the salvation to which New York is clinging, to make the final months of the season meaningful.

Or perhaps bearable.

Crawford said he and his teammates are using the conference standings as motivation to get through yet another dark stretch of a season in which light and hope have been as rare as cheers at Madison Square Garden.

"Yeah, definitely. You've got to talk about it," said Crawford, who was a high school All-American a decade ago at Seattle's Rainier Beach High School. He left 40 tickets for friends and family attending Saturday's game.

Crawford and coach Isiah Thomas are also encouraged by how the Knicks played on what, at first glance, appeared to be a miserable trip. New York had leads in three of the first four games of the trip, including a 15-point edge in the second half Friday night at Portland. The Knicks led the Lakers by nine with nine minutes left on Jan. 29 — then lost by 11.

"Coming out on the road, we've been playing against some pretty tough teams who are playing well," Thomas said before facing the sorry Sonics (11-35). "The Lakers. Utah. Golden State. Those are good basketball teams. And we've had a chance to win every game. So that gives you some confidence."

As Seattle coach P.J. Carlesimo said before Saturday's game, "I wonder if they are just happier with not playing at home. They are playing well."

And that gives Crawford hope.

"We've been competing," he said. "It's pretty much the same thing: Teams make their one big run. We have to handle that.

"It's tough, losing these games, because I feel like we have a better team than we did at the beginning of the season. That gives us optimism. We're playing better. We've had leads going into the fourth quarter. At the beginning of the year, we were losing games by 20, 25 points."

New York welcomed back forward Quentin Richardson on Saturday after he missed Friday with the flu. Center Eddy Curry remained out with the flu. Point guard Stephon Marbury had surgery last month to remove bone spurs in his left ankle and may miss the rest of the season.