GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Just over a year ago, Amare Stoudemire was looking sharp on the Knicks' bench.
But the sharp that makes GQ take notice, not opponents. That's because STAT was forced to dress in business casual for Game 3 against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. And his absence left the Knicks without enough offensive firepower beyond Carmelo Anthony.
Now, in addition to Anthony playing arguably the best basketball of his career (offensively and defensively), Stoudemire says his back feels "phenomenal" at the right stretch just before the postseason, and he's thinking much bigger this time around.
"We want to have more of a run this year," STAT said after Tuesday's practice at the team's training facility. "Last year, we lost in the first round. We got swept by the Celtics and it left a sour taste in our mouth. It wasn’t fun. Going out with an injury in the first round and getting swept by a team is never fun. We’re looking forward to having a deeper run."
Not only are Stoudemire and Anthony both healthy, but they seemed to play better together on Sunday, capitalizing offensively in different ways during the Knicks' 113-112 win over the Hawks. They didn't stall the offense by both settling for isolation opportunities. While Anthony mostly put up points in isolation (he had a game-high 39), Stoudemire scored nine of his 22 points in pick-and-rolls.
"Amare was phenomenal," Anthony said afterwards. "The way we played off each other -- when he had it, he had it. When I had it, I had it.’"
Of course, Tyson Chandler, who's been the primary screener this season, rested that afternoon, but Mike Woodson can't get away from using Stoudemire in that role as well. Both players will have to divide up those opportunities and also set off-the-ball screens to free up Steve Novak and J.R. Smith from 3-point range. Spacing, above all, is the most important factor, so Chandler and Stoudemire don't get in each other's way and they have enough room to slash to the basket. That will also help shooters get open.
A benefit to having Stoudemire on the court with the constantly attacking Anthony is that STAT can receive the feed down low for the dunk, as well as catch and shoot from Melo's passes. (Chandler is better suited playing inside.) Offensive balance between Stoudemire and Anthony is key, because what can't happen is that they both become stand-alone isolation scorers. That will disrupt the entire flow of the offense and allow the defense to make easier stops.
Here's one scout's take on the Anthony-Stoudemire pairing:
"The dynamic between Anthony and Stoudemire is one of the Knicks' biggest problems. I don't think they can play together. Anthony and Stoudemire are very similar in that they've both got sticky fingers. The ball goes to them and they're used to being the focal point; they're used to getting isos. So they spend the next 7-8 seconds sizing up their defender or waiting to see how the defense is playing them.
"That's not conducive to the other's game. It's a your-turn, my-turn thing, so it's hard to get into the flow. When you've got two guys like that who are healthy and very gifted offensively, you may be able to pull it off -- kind of like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But when one's not healthy or what he used to be, like Stoudemire is now, it doesn't work."
Overall, with Anthony as the primary isolation scorer -- not Stoudemire -- the offense will have a better flow because Melo's a better passer. Woodson needs to continue to work the ball through Anthony in his sweet spots (the midrange and post-up areas), while using Stoudemire as a pick-and-roller, and a shooter from kick outs and off down screens. And those could be set by Chandler, who then could roll to the rim for an easy alley-oop pass from STAT.
The Knicks have the frontcourt pieces to make plays, but they'll need to get creative with their two- and three-man games. They've shown glimpses of that this season, but not enough, and that's partially been due to all of the injuries the team has faced. They haven't been able to build a consistent rhythm -- and a rotation for that matter -- and those are things that will be crucial come playoff time.
"I've got to start thinking about rotations," Woodson said after Monday's practice. "I'm going to try to look at Dan Gadzuric a little bit tomorrow with all the bigs that [the Clippers] have to see how he fares a little bit. But I'm in the rotation mode now, trying to figure out who's going to play and where I'm going to slot guys in."
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