Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK — The Knicks may be losers of three of their last four and five of their last eight, but at 21-10, they have a healthy five-game lead in the Atlantic Division and are just one game behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference.
One of the surprises during the first half of the NBA season, the Knicks were able to accomplish what they did over the first 30 games without Amar’e Stoudemire, who made his season debut on Tuesday in a 105-100 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Stoudemire missed the first 30 games of the season after left knee surgery in the preseason.
The six-time All-Star power forward looked rusty in finishing with six points on 3-for-8 shooting in 17 minutes. Stoudemire isn’t quite there yet with his play or his conditioning, but the fact he is finally out there playing is a step in the right direction.
“I almost shed a tear when I walked out on the court with the standing ovation,” Stoudemire said of the reaction from the Madison Square Garden crowd when he checked into the game for the first time at the 3:31 mark of the first quarter. “It was a phenomenal feeling. I haven’t quite felt nothing like that in my career, so it’s great to see the fans were patient with me and waiting for me to return.”
“It was great to see him back out there,” Carmelo Anthony added. “Having him back in the lineup, it was great to see him back out there. He missed some shots early on, I think the adrenaline and everything was flowing early. Once he settled down, he kind of let it come to him, he got some easy shots and that’s when he started feeling like himself again.”
Stoudemire is back, Anthony returned from a two-game absence thanks to a hyperextended left knee to score a game-high 45 and the work begins of getting everyone on the same page.
With Tuesday’s loss, Stoudemire and Anthony are 31-41 including the playoffs in games they both play in. That mark includes 8-3 under head coach Mike Woodson, who doesn’t seem to be concerned with getting everyone on the same page or getting Stoudemire back to the All-NBA level he used to play at.
“From a defensive standpoint, he was rusty,” Woodson said. “We have to keep working with him and take it a day at a time and see how he feels tomorrow. He was rushing a little bit, but you expect that. He was excited to play, he will be fine. We will get him back to normal Amar’e.”
After the Knicks came out of the gates on fire this season, the assumption rapidly became that Stoudemire would be best served coming off the bench and anchoring a second unit that features J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Steve Novak.
Stoudemire did just that on Tuesday and for at least right now, that appears to be what Woodson will go with. Once Stoudemire shook off some of the rust, his teammates got him some quality looks at the rim.
Late in the third quarter, Smith blew by his defender, got into the lane and dropped off a pass for a cutting Stoudemire, who dunked on Victor Claver. Early in the fourth quarter, he ran a pick-and-roll with Prigioni to perfection, capped by another dunk.
“I felt good, but the game was going 100 miles an hour,” Stoudemire said. “I was a little rusty. My second half was better than my first half and hopefully, my second game will be better than my first.”
Anthony and Stoudemire were only on the court together for 11:21 on Tuesday, but that number will surely increase as Stoudemire gets more acclimated. A potential late-game playoff lineup with Jason Kidd, Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler was on the floor for a brief time in the second quarter.
Anthony is also still working his way back from his knee injury and like Stoudemire, is not playing at full strength. On Monday at practice, Anthony didn’t sound too confident he could go, but after working out on the MSG floor two hours before tip, he deemed himself fit enough to play.
After the game, Anthony said the knee was sore and became achy after a driving dunk late in the fourth quarter.
“I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent, but I don’t know when the last time I was 100 percent was to be honest with you,” Anthony said. “At this point, it is what it is. It’s about getting better every day.”