With Amar'e in town, something's going on with the Knicks
Posted Dec 16 2010 11:09AM
All last season, there was no "Amar'e Countdown" or "Amar'e Watch" in the New York papers. The fans didn't chant his name or drop on bended knee when his team, the Suns, played at the Garden. And when it came time to sign free agents last summer, he was far enough down the wish list that you needed to borrow his goggles to find him.
No, he wasn't The One They Wanted. Or even The Two They Wanted.
But after a franchise-record nine-straight 30-point games, and an MVP-like start, New Yorkers are glad to have him. Even better for the Knicks and their fans: Amar'e Stoudemire wanted New York, and how many free agents in any sport would gladly walk into the snakepit that he did?
Well, yes, the money helps. A lot. One hundred extra-large is enough to convince anyone to play anywhere and for any team -- even for the Clippers. Let's be clear about that. And yet, this is New York, which can be cruel, and these were the Knicks, desperate for a savior and by extension, a scapegoat if the misery continued. This wasn't a situation for the meek.
Apparently, it's a situation made for Stoudemire.
"This was the plan," Stoudemire said. "The plan was to have success."
Stoudemire isn't the answer to the whole puzzle, but a generous piece that the Knicks needed to become relevant again. With a 16-10 record, and a hunch that if nothing else the Dark Decade is over, the Garden is noisy again. Knicks games are an event; Wednesday night's thriller with the Celtics certainly was, and Friday's visit by Miami will certainly be. And there's someone worth paying to see, for the first time since Patrick Ewing.
"There's a reason he's balling this season," said Nene, the Nuggets' center. "Nobody's stopping him."
He came a split-second away from a special moment when he barely missed beating the Celtics with a game-winning 3-pointer Wednesday. Still, he was the best player on the floor, scoring 39 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Not even Ewing had a run like this, which is why there's a basketball awakening in New York.
Stoudemire so far has dismissed two myths: That he'd be less of a player without Steve Nash around, and that he couldn't elevate a dormant team. Instead, he's playing the best of his career away from Nash, averaging 26.2 points (up five points from his career average) and is having as good a season, if not better, than anyone in the NBA. That's including LeBron James, the player the Knicks and New York wanted last summer. That puts Stoudemire in the early conversation for MVP and the Knicks in the running for a top-5 finish in the East.
That would be Raymond Felton. After a month-long get-acquainted period, the two have figured each other out and Felton, another free agent signee for the Knicks, is also having a career year. He dropped 26 points and 14 assists on Rajon Rondo in the loss to the Celtics.
What really endeared Stoudemire to New York is how quickly and effortlessly he connected with the city. When it comes to the challenge of playing in New York, many free agents talk it but don't walk it. Stoudemire could've gone to Chicago. But once the Knicks expressed interest -- and, yes, delivered the check -- he was sold.
"He not only wanted to come here, he embraced it," said Walsh. "You have to have some confidence to come to a place that hasn't been winning, to a big city where you're under scrutiny all the time."
For a team that's missed the playoffs eight of the last nine years, and endured Scott Layden, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry, Stoudemire has been a refreshing change. Both the franchise and city were ready for something different.
"Amar'e is the No. 1 guy in the East right now," said Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh. "People are trying to stack their defense against him. He's the one they're trying to stop."
Stoudemire made his rep from the pick-and-roll, which he ran to perfection with Nash in Phoenix. Understandably, then, the question was what he could do without Nash feeding him easy layups.
"They both benefitted from each other," said Walsh. "People thought it was Amar'e who benefitted, but to me it was good for Nash to have him around. I think Nash misses him now. And I think Amar'e can reach the point where he can do the same things with Raymond."
"Everything has fallen into place," Stoudemire said. "The city, my teammates, and we're winning, which is most important."
Of course, there's the matter of Stoudemire's knee, which underwent microfracture surgery and whether it will survive the duration of his contract. And whether he'll be compatible with the next scorer the Knicks sign, meaning Carmelo Anthony, provided the Knicks get him before the Nets.
At least the Knicks know Stoudemire isn't rubbing Mike D'Antoni the wrong way, which was often the case when the two were in Phoenix.
"Amar'e has matured as a person and a player," said Walsh. "When Mike had him before, he was much younger and had some things to learn.
"Let me say this: There's nothing about this player that I don't like. He's as good a player that I've ever had. He's as good as anyone in the league right now. He said he wanted to be a leader and he's backing that up with the way he works and the way he competes. He's been great with the media, the fans and the people in the office. I don't see anything about Amar'e that's a negative."