Anthony, Stoudemire and a nonjudgmental Garden come together, just in time to avoid a sweep
For all the fatalism surrounding the New York Knicks entering Sunday's Game 4 against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden—the long odds facing any team down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, the 13-game playoff losing streak going back 11 years, the endless injuries, both unlucky and idiotic—the crowd was in a celebratory mood beforehand.
And why not. The fans were witnessing just the sixth playoff game at at the Garden since 2001. And after a dispririting 87-70 loss to Miami on Thursday night, it seemed like this one might be the last for a while.
So Carmelo Anthony, who was awful in Game 3, was greeted with unabashed cheers. Landry Fields, locked in a brutal season-long shooting slump, got an unconditional ovation, too, as was Amar'e Stoudemire, who missed Game 3 due to an injury he sustained punching a glass-covered fire extinguisher.
Almost without any help at all from their teammates on offense, Anthony and Stoudemire, the two stars who supposedly can't co-exist, led the Knicks to an 89-87 win, and survival for at least one more game.
Anthony turned in the kind of performance he'd routinely been giving New York for the final month of the regular season, scoring 41 points, adding six rebounds and four assists, three of the four on feeds to Stoudemire. Meanwhile, Stoudemire's only assist came on a feed to Anthony, and while playing with a heavily bandaged hand, frequently both gathering and shooting one-handed, Stoudemire scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and gave the Knicks an offensive counter to any efforts by Miami to overplay Anthony all night.
"I thought Melo and Stat were huge tonight," a clearly relieved coach Mike Woodson said at the podium in the press room following Sunday's game. "We needed a big game out of both of those guys to get over the hump. They've been fighting all year, and now we've got this monkey off our back. We're still playing."
Really, though, Stoudemire and Anthony were it. The two stars combined to shoot 23-for-42, or 55 percent. The rest of the Knicks shot 9-for-33, or 27 percent. J.R. Smith shot 3-for-15, doing admirable defensive work on Dwayne Wade, but struggling badly with his shot. And no other Knick even took more than five shots, nor did any Knick top Smith's seven total points among the non-Anthony/Stoudemire group. No Knick made a three-point shot, period, until midway through the third quarter.
As a result, no one at Madison Square Garden could decide whether they were attending a playoff game or a wake. The Heat raced out to an 8-1 lead, but nobody booed. With Iman Shumpert out, with Stoudemire down to one hand (not unlike Tyson Chandler, who has been playing for months with a wrist injury), the crowd apparently decided this Knicks team needed all the help it could get.
The fans roared as the Knicks came back to take the lead, 13-12, with a healthy dose of Stoudemire dunking and Anthony driving to the hoop, instead of settling for and missing jumpers. By the end of the first quarter, the Knicks led 20-18.
Then Mike Woodson did something a little strange. He rested both Anthony and Stoudemire. He rested Tyson Chandler. His second-quarter lineup was like a signal to his superiors not to hold any playoff failings against him, due to the limited depth he had to work with: Mike Bibby, J.R. Smith, Jared Jeffries, Josh Harrellson and Steve Novak. Who the offense should run through, how on earth Novak would get any shots created for him, or how such a group could be expected to stay with Miami, who had both James and Wade in the game, was an utter mystery.
They duly fell behind, 24-20. Stoudemire returned, but having committed two unnecessary fouls in the first quarter, he quickly added a third and returned to the bench, bringing back Anthony. But with that group around him, the Heat converged on Anthony, rendering him ineffective for several minutes. Miami's lead ballooned to ten.
But with a chance to run the Knicks out of their own building, Miami stuttered, too. Despite the repeated misses from the Knicks, who made just five field goals the entire quarter, Miami did not respond with transition hoops. They let James guard Anthony, and for the first time in the series, James wasn't really up to the task. Anthony scored ten in the period to keep New York close, but the cheers were uneasy as James missed a 17-footer to keep the Knicks within six, 44-38 at halftime.
Anthony was just 6-for-14. Stoudemire had taken just four shots, and was in significant foul trouble. Smith was 1-for-7. And Steve Novak, absolutely bottled up by Miami, hadn't even taken a shot.
The Heat looked ready to put the series to rest in the second half. The crowd took Miami's run like a series of body blows, low groans as Dwayne Wade put in a ridiculous 14-footer, Udonis Haslem shot over Stoudemire, Bosh made a jumper to conclude a largely effective defensive possession from New York. The score was 51-40. No one booed. There was a general understanding that the Knicks were not good enough to beat Miami.
Then: a microcosm of the season. As all hope was lost, New York began a comeback. Stoudemire made a 14-footer, off a pass from Anthony. A stop, and Stoudemire got the crowd excited with another thunderous dunk. The defense forced James out of bounds, Anthony made a layup, and when Smith hit the first three-pointer New York had hit all day, it was 51-50, Miami. James drove the lane, intent upon quieting the crowd, but Stoudemire and Chandler converged upon him, forced a miss, and Chandler found Baron Davis moving up court ahead of the crowd. The noise level rose as Davis drove toward what would have been a dunk to give New York its first lead since the start of the second quarter and ... silence.
Davis, it would later be reported, dislocated his kneecap. He fell to the floor, motionless. Both teams huddled around him (Davis is well-liked throughout the league). He was called for traveling.
"I almost shed a tear on the court, to be honest with you," Stoudemire said from the press podium following the game. "It was something that I don't want to see again. Baron is such a great guy off the court, and as a teammate, he's a phenomenal locker-room guy, and to see that, I dropped down to one knee and said a prayer while he was on the ground. It was that sad."
Davis, the battered playmaker, had played 25 minutes of a possible 31 to that point. Now the Knicks had lost him, while their other starter-quality point guard Jeremy Lin was in a suit. It would be up to Mike Bibby to give the Knicks whatever he could.
That was largely bringing the ball up the court, sending it over to Anthony or Stoudemire in isolation, or getting it to J.R. Smith. When it ended up in the hands of the first two, good things happened. Smith never found his shot, but never stopped looking, either.
Still, remarkably: The combination of Anthony, Stoudemire and good team defense was enough to keep the Knicks ahead, 62-58 after three quarters.
It was enough to hold off a combo effort from James and Wade in the fourth, too. This was star basketball. James had nine points, Wade had 11, and no other Miami player made more than a single shot in the fourth quarter. Anthony had 12, Stoudemire five, and no other Knick made more than a single shot (though Smith, ridiculously, took six, repeatedly missing opportunities to find Stoudemire because, frankly, Smith is not a point guard).
Anthony and Wade matched jumpers to knot things at 81. The Knicks forced Miami into a poor shot, swung the ball around, and with 1:23 to go, found it in the hands of... Mike Bibby, who shot 28 percent from the field this season. Not from three. From everywhere.
He sank a three to give the Knicks an 84-81 lead. Pandemonium. Miami timeout. No one sat down during the timeout, nor when play resumed, nor even when LeBron James raced down court and tied the game at 84 with a long three of his own.
But finally, Carmelo Anthony was equal to the Miami task. With the ball in his hands, and the game clock down to under a minute, Anthony sank a three of his own. The Garden got even louder.
"It was a great feeling," Anthony said after the game from the press podium. "Especially here, in the Garden, the fans were tremendous tonight, despite all of the stuff that's been going on with our team."
Again, the fans stayed on their feet. They got quiet when Anthony, fouled shooting a three, made just one free throw, and quieter still when James made a layup, drew the disqualifying foul on Chandler, and sank the free throw to get Miami within one.
After Stoudemire pushed the lead back to two, 89-87, the cries for "Defense! Defense!" were less lusty than plaintive as Miami came down the court with one final chance. Dwayne Wade drove the Chandler-less lane, as anyone would, but the Knicks disturbed his momentum just enough to bounce him out beyond the three-point line, where he rose with a final shot that could have ended the series as time expired.
But it missed. Confetti rained down, and a bunch of New York fans, who supposedly only rejoices over championships, went crazy.