Amar'e returns, and the Knicks are under construction again
As coach Mike Woodson answered questions less than 90 minutes before tipoff of Tuesday night's game against the Portland Trailblazers, a 105-100 loss, neither he nor anyone in the press room knew what his lineup would be.
The only real certainty Woodson expressed about his injury-battered team was about Amar'e Stoudemire's return. And Stoudemire, returning from a knee injury that was merely the latest injury to sideline him, might just be the biggest variable on the Knicks roster right now.
"He will play," Woodson said to kick off his pregame presser. "How many minutes, I don't know, but he will play. ... He'll come off the bench tonight, and we'll just gauge it as the ballgame goes along."
A series of questions followed about who else would be available to play, and for how long.
Would Carmelo Anthony, the team's best player, who'd been sidelined with a knee injury for the past two games, suit up?
"Game-time decision," said Woodson. "So we'll have to just wait on that and see."
Even as Woodson said this, Anthony was warming up on the court.
Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, two other members of the starting lineup that had produced so many early wins, were pronounced ready, if limited. Both had missed practice time since New York's close Friday night loss in Sacremento, Chandler with an ankle injury, Kidd with the Knicks' cutomarily opaque "recovery day".
And Chandler, right now, is not at full strength, as he acknowledged after the game.
As for Kidd, 39 years old, he's being asked to play a new position (though to be fair, one he mastered for many years), since yet another starter from this season's initial Knicks team, Raymond Felton, is out for the next 4-6 weeks with a fractured pinky.
The only other point guard on the roster is 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni, who has been productive, but too turnover-prone.
"Right now, with just Jason and Pablo, I've got to balance that somehow, where Kidd is not playing 30-plus minutes, so I'm going to lean on Pablo to give us some extra minutes, so hopefully those minutes, I think, will be positive."
So for those keeping score at home, the starting lineup that helped the Knicks become the N.B.A.'s biggest surprise team included a center now playing on an injured ankle, a power forward who'd missed time and whose return status was unknown, and a shooting guard playing point guard because the point guard was out.
Oh, and the final member of that lineup, Ronnie Brewer, hadn't made a three-pointer since December 9 while shooting 25 percent from the field over that time.
A sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden was relatively pensive, compared to the raucous atmosphere of the season's first two months.
Amar'e Stoudemire got a sustained ovation when he entered the game, at the 3:31 mark of the first quarter. And then everyone quieted down, waiting to see what would happen.
It wasn't good, particularly early on. Stoudemire's movements were slow, often late. His first attempt came on a post move; he was forced out of bounds by his defender. The Knicks made repeated efforts to get him the ball, but he was repeatedly too slow to slip his defender in a pick and roll.
When the first half ended, the Knicks trailed, 58-47. Stoudemire had missed all five of his shots.
He has spent much of his career accruing double-figure rebounding totals. In more than nine minutes on the floor in his return, he'd failed to corral one. The Garden crowd was almost funereal. There was no booing. Just quiet, expressing concern that the Stoudemire they were seeing differed so dramatically from the franchise-saving offensive juggernaut who'd signed with the team in the summer of 2010.
"The game felt like it was going a hundred miles an hour," Stoudemire told the assembled reporters at his locker following the game.
He'd arrived far later than usual after the game ended, getting treatment on his still-recovering knee first.
"In that first half, got a couple of easy-looking shots. Just a little rusty, wasn't able to knock those down. The second half was better than my first half. Hopefully the second game'll be better than my first game."
The second half was indeed better. The Knicks, who seemed as invested in getting Stoudemire right as they were in winning the game, repeatedly gave him pick-and-roll opportunities in the third quarter. Anthony found him on one such play for his first points, a layup at the 3:11 mark of the third. A few possessions later, a penetrating J.R. Smith found Stoudemire driving along the baseline. The old Stoudemire was visible in the dunk that followed.
"I felt very explosive," Stoudemire would say following the game, of that dunk. "My timing was a little bit off out there but my legs, my explosiveness felt good. It was a great sign."
The Knicks cut Portland's lead to 65-62 midway through the third quarter, almost entirely on the back of Anthony, who ended up with 45 points. That is really a tribute to just how good Anthony has been this season; a Bernard King-like performance from Anthony on a recovering knee felt like a given. So did the scoring, passing and defensive prowess of J.R. Smith, easily the second-most valuable Knicks right now.
Between Anthony and Smith, who has now scored more than 25 points in four straight games coming off the bench, the Knicks had enough scoring to hang around, but seemingly no more than that. The team's defense, on a steady decline from the opening weeks, may have hit rock-bottom, with a Portland team that didn't seem particularly inclined to attack the basket scoring at will when it did so anyway.
Stoudemire is unlikely to help arrest this decline any. At his peak, he is still an unskilled defender.
This new version of the Knicks will need to outscore opponents (though a return to health by Chandler, and forthcoming return of stout perimeter defender Iman Shumpert, still missing with a knee injury, will patch things somewhat).
The Knicks managed to whittle down a 96-81 deficit with 4:34 to play to the single digits.
The Madison Square Garden crowd came alive. And the Knicks got within a possession of tying things up, too.
But Anthony's final shot attempt of the night, a rushed three-pointer with 13 seconds left, bounced harmlessly off the side of the rim. The Blazers escaped with a win; the Knicks lost back-to-back games like this for only the second time since Woodson became coach.
That alone is a remarkable testament to Woodson's tenure with the Knicks, which has been characterized by roster instability. His half-season from last year, and third of a season this year, has included six different primary point guards at different points, plus a host of injuries and changes to the team in the offseason.
Anthony limped noticeably near the end of the game. He'd aggravated his knee injury driving to the basket late, and didn't know how he'd feel Wednesday.
“It was just more on the takeoff,” Anthony told reporters following the game. “Not just sitting out a week, not being able to do any strengthening exercises with it. It’s just a matter of how much pain I could take."
Stoudemire, similarly, is taking it one game at a time.
"It was a long process," Stoudemire said of his recovery, noting that Tuesday was the first regular-season game he'd played in nine months. "Rehabilitation, lot of training, lot of rehab to get to this point. But I'm glad that I'm here. It felt great, and I'm going to continue to improve."
Elsewhere in New York sports:
Heading into Wednesday night's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Brooklyn Nets and Deron Williams are facing an existential crisis, says Howard Beck.
The (last?) Big East season begins in earnest Wednesday, with Rutgers traveling to Syracuse, Seton Hall off to DePaul, and St. John's facing Villanova.