NEW YORK — Before signing with the New York Knicks back in July 2010, Amar’e Stoudemire did his homework. Some 48 hours before his first meeting with James Dolan and the Knicks’ brass, he’d spoken with both Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker.
According to him, both were ready to team up with him to begin the renaissance.
Although the Spurs were ultimately able to retain Parker, Anthony eventually made his way to the Mecca.
Now, almost two years later, if the Knicks dynamic duo is to make history, Stoudemire will have to turn back the clock. He’ll not only have to play as if it were 2010, he’ll have to do for Anthony what he did back then.
The Knicks (23-24) are currently riding a five-game win streak and will attempt to make it six tonight when they take on the Toronto Raptors (15-32) at the Air Canada Centre.
Yes, Mike Woodson’s fingerprints are all over this team. He’s tweaked the offense, modified the rotation, and hired both Jim Todd and Darrell Walker to his staff. But over the course of this five-game win streak, Stoudemire has been the difference maker. And for the Knicks to be successful, he needs to reemerge as the leader of the Knicks—on both ends of the floor.
Immediately upon his arrival, Anthony became the focal point of the Knicks’ offense. The ball has been in his hands and he’s taken the most shots. It’s been 47 games and Anthony is still in a bit of a shooting funk. Whether it’s due to the wrist injury he sustained earlier this season or the offseason elbow surgery, it’s obvious that he isn’t right.
To Woodson’s credit, he’s altered the offense in a few minor ways. Stoudemire has been setting screens for both Jeremy Lin and Anthony and has been getting the ball in the post much more consistently. He’s been in rhythm and has contributed on both ends of the floor.
If keeping Stoudemire involved and happy on the offensive makes him exert more energy and effort on the defensive end, that’s an easy call to make. It becomes easier when your best player isn’t scoring the ball the way he’s capable of and your second best player has proven that he has the ability to contribute on both ends of the floor.
Yes, the midrange jumper is what got Stoudemire $100 million.
But consistent energy and effort—on the defensive end—is what he’ll need if he ever wants to compete for a championship. For most of the season, he hasn’t had either. But for these past five games? He’s had both.
After the Knicks defeated the 76ers in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, Stoudemire was in high spirits. “I was off in the offseason, rehabbing my back, the whole lockout.” He said. “But I feel great now… My rhythm’s back, my strength is back, my timing’s back.”
And apparently, so is his shooting touch.
On the season, Stoudemire is shooting just 47.3 percent from the field. That’s six full points below his career average of 53.3 percent and the lowest percentage he’s shot over the course of a season since he shot 47.5 percent in 55 games back in 2003-2004.
Over the five-game streak, however, he’s converted on 57.4 percent of attempts. He’s also led all starters in scoring in three of the five games.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stoudemire has been active and engaged. During the streak, his rebounding has only been slightly higher than his season average, and he’s not blocking more shots. But he’s still forcing misses and making a difference.
That was never more evident than it was against the 76ers on Wednesday night. Down the stretch, Woodson went with a five-man unit of Lin, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Anthony and Stoudemire.
After Andre Iguodala connected from behind the arc with 3:35 remaining, the Knicks would eventually seal the game while holding the 76ers without a field goal for the game’s next three minutes. By the time Jrue Holiday ended the drought with 20.9 seconds remaining, the Knicks had opened up a seven-point lead.
“Unimpressive” was the word I used to describe the four games that the Knicks won prior to the defensive slugfest in Philadelphia. The Trail Blazers were going through a crisis and cleaned house the day after the loss in New York, and the Knicks ran into the Pacers on their fifth and sixth games in an eight-night stretch.
And no, I don’t consider beating the Toronto Raptors at home—even though they were victorious the last time they visited MSG—as something to be proud of.
But after Wednesday’s win, it’s obvious that the Knicks have turned a corner.
It’s obvious that Stoudemire has, too.
And it’s something everyone—including ‘Melo—has noticed. “Everybody’s been feeding off of his energy,” he said.
According to Stoudemire, he spent approximately six months away from the game of basketball while he was rehabbing his back. Although he still lacks his explosiveness, his quick first step seems to have returned. He remains a work in progress.
But until Anthony is healthy enough to have a good shooting night or two, Woodson should give Stoudemire more responsibility on the offensive end. As well as he’s played recently, he still gets very few touches at the end of close games. His biggest strengths—his speed and agility—should yield favorable results against 75 percent of opposing power forwards around the league.
Tonight, the Knicks will be without Jared Jeffries and according to New York Newsday’s Al Iannazzone, Jeffries is doubtful for Saturday’s game against the Pistons. Without him, the Knicks will depend on Stoudemire to play the center position while Tyson Chandler rests.
And if he dominates the paint on both ends the way he did on Wednesday, the Knicks may be able to continue their winning ways.
In this lockout-truncated NBA season, it’s amazing what kind of difference a week makes. Just seven days ago, the Knicks were 20-24 and faced with the very real possibility of missing the playoffs. And while they aren’t remotely close to punching their ticket for the postseason, the most prevalent question in New York City—at the moment—is whether or not the Knicks can actually win the Atlantic Division for the first time in 18 years.
They’ve certainly got a shot. As it stands, they trail the Celtics and the 76ers by 2.5 and three games, respectively.
For this five-game winning streak, Stoudemire deserves credit. “We’re still trying to win our division,” he said.
With good game planning, team-wide effort, and renewed focus from Stoudemire, the Knicks are still alive.
Surprisingly, at least for another week, S.T.A.T. can stand for Still Thinking Atlantic Title.