11:32 am Feb. 3, 2012
Carmelo Anthony entered the Knicks locker room Thursday night, looking like a professor in his horn-rimmed spectacles, about to address the class of reporters swarmed around his locker, cameras and recording devices at the ready.
He sat wearily in his chair, as one reporter said, “Tough day at the office?”
Anthony smiled and replied, “I'll take it.”
At first blush, this was an odd answer. Anthony, whose acquisition was supposed to be a prelude to years of championship runs had just played in a 105-102 home loss that left New York at 8-14 on the season. The Knicks are closer to last place in the Eastern Conference than first place in their division, and if the playoffs started today, New York would be staying home.
But the playoffs do not start today. With Thursday's loss to Chicago, the season is merely one-third complete. And in a game against the Eastern Conference's best team, the Knicks showed signs of being a playoff-caliber team.
The most impressive Knick offensively was not Anthony, but Amar'e Stoudemire. The two stars shared shots about equally—27 for Stoudemire, 26 for Anthony—and Stoudemire finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds. He turned the ball over just once, got to the basket repeatedly, and comfortably shot his mid-range jumper, which eluded him for much of the season. After a summer spent rehabilitating his back injury, he seems to be getting into proper basketball shape.
“It's been a long layoff for me,” Stoudemire told reporters as he stood at his locker, smartly dressed in a brown sport coat and matching fedora. “I've been working on my back all summer. So I didn't have the chance to be playing basketball, like most of the guys. I feel like I'm getting into the flow of the season now, playing smart basketball.”
Early on, as Stoudemire asserted himself, Anthony found him repeatedly in the kind of two-man game that the Knicks envisioned from the day they acquired both elite scorers. Stoudemire had 16 points by early in the second quarter, and while the scoring burden eventually shifted to Anthony as well, it happened within the offense. The scoring opportunities rarely came from isolation or early-possession forced shots.
It was one thing for Stoudemire and Anthony to do this on Tuesday night in a 113-86 win over the porous Pistons. Chicago offered little opportunity to exploit matchups on the defensive end, particularly with the gifted Joaquin Noah guarding Stoudemire. It didn't matter who guarded either Stoudemire or Anthony Thursday night, which is the point of employing scorers like the two of them.
The Garden crowd, which has spent much of the season making its exasperation clear, responded with the kind of enthusiasm not heard since a preseason win over the Nets—before all the unpleasantness of the team’s early-season form.
Instead, the fans saved their venom for anyone who wasn't in New York's starting five. The Knicks received six points on 2-for-13 shooting from their four bench players. Jared Jeffries shot 0-for-4, Toney Douglas shot seven times in 15 minutes—making just two—while turning the ball over three times and failing to guide the offense in any kind of coherent way. In limited time, Bill Walker and Renaldo Balkman, too, provided little.
“He struggled a little bit tonight,” Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said about Douglas in his postgame news conference. The Douglas question knocked the smile off of his face after four more upbeat questions.
“He and the rest of the guys need to do a better job of getting the ball down the court and not turning it over,” D’Antoni said.
By this point in the season, the crowd groans when Douglas puts up a shot, so conditioned are they by his season-long shooting slump to assume his (many) shots won't go in. The sound the Garden makes when Jared Jeffries, a defense-and-rebounding specialist, elects to shoot the ball is more like how they’d sound seeing a dog try to play the piano. Little is expected, and everyone's surprised even at the attempt.
But Anthony and Stoudemire did have help on this night. Center Tyson Chandler, who earns nothing but love from the Garden crowd, despite being the major offseason acquisition for a thus-far disappointing team, was efficient offensively again—4-of-5 from the field—and dominant defensively. A late blocked shot of Chicago's Derrick Rose, which required exquisite timing, helped keep the Knicks within three points late in the game and earned a crowd response equal to the cheers for any of Anthony or Stoudemire's offensive bullets.
Landry Fields continued his recent renaissance, scoring in double figures for the eighth time in his last nine games, adding four assists, and connecting three times from three-point range, stretching the defense in a way few other Knicks can.
“He's playing well,” D'Antoni said. “He's back to where he was last year.”
And Iman Shumpert, a point guard of necessity, dished out eight assists, following six assists on Tuesday night. This represents a massive leap forward—in the four games before that, Shumpert totaled seven assists.
Still, the Knicks trailed for most of the game, drawing even in the fourth but never taking the lead. Rose did much of the damage himself, scoring 15 of Chicago's 28 points in the fourth quarter while assisting on most of the others. (He is the kind of point guard Stoudemire and Anthony dream of at night.)
But at precisely the moment the Knicks have fallen apart in other games this season, when a triple-team didn't stop Anthony from hoisting up a failed attempt, or another Knick with no business using a critical possession wastes it, New York moved the ball, found Stoudemire in three of four trips down the court, and pressed Chicago to the end.
Not only were the fans loud, as opposed to the “Let's Go Giants” chants that broke out during largely irrelevant final periods earlier this season, boos did not follow possessions that ended in a miss. There seemed to be a group recognition that the Knicks were doing it right, and the process was more important than the results. A Toney Douglas three-pointer with a hand in his face might provide points today, but Anthony and Stoudemire finding each other on the court will produce wins tomorrow.
Old habits die hard. In a pair of possessions with under a minute to go, Anthony took it upon himself to push the ball to the hoop, teammates be damned, and the results were a pair of misses that helped Chicago seal the win. Still, New York played solid defense, and some Bulls misses at the free-throw line gave New York two chances to tie in the final fifteen seconds.
One miss came from Stoudemire, the other from Anthony. But no one booed as the Knicks came off the court. With 44 games left, New York is 2 ½ games out of the final playoff spot in the East. But from Carmelo Anthony down to the many fans wearing his jersey, everyone seemed to know that if the Knicks play like they did Thursday, this worrying season may turn out OK, after all.