Before the season started, one of the key questions for the Knicks was: Should J.R. Smith start? He was asked about it continuously until he put the topic to rest, accepting his bench role and saying, "I prefer to finish games anyway." The sixth man went on to hit two game-winning shots and elevate himself into the All-Star conversation.
Now Amar'e Stoudemire finds himself in a similar situation. He has had no complaints about coming off the bench since his New Year's Day return from knee surgery -- and on Sunday night in a 106-104 win over the Hawks, Stoudemire, too, showed why closing out games is more important than starting. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter and chipped in with three rebounds and a block.
He ran the court well on a breakaway, getting fouled and making both free throws. Then he went after a bad pass from Josh Smith and converted a difficult shot in traffic. Later, Carmelo Anthony found Stoudemire on a cut and he followed up his miss with a layup. Three possessions, six straight points.
A few plays later, Stoudemire grabbed an offensive rebound after Anthony missed a short jumper, and got fouled and made both foul shots. Then, after a Smith miss, STAT kept the possession alive with another offensive board, and later, he scrapped for a loose ball.
After the game, Mike Woodson said he has been impressed with the effort from Stoudemire, who tallied 18 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes.
"He's been active the last four or five games in terms of when the shot goes up. He's able to get it and score," the coach said. "We just have to continue to ride him and push him in the right direction. He's so curious and anxious defensively in trying to do the right thing, and that's very encouraging."
What's also encouraging is Stoudemire's low-post game. He is showing a quick first step, strong dribbling and sharp spin moves -- sometimes even finishing with his left hand. His improved back-to-the-basket playmaking has given the Knicks another free-throw threat, especially late in games. He was 6-for-8 from the line Sunday.
Most recently, STAT has been reunited with Raymond Felton, his running mate in 2010-11, and they had a big connection with 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter, when the point guard dished to the big man for a one-handed dunk.
"There's going to be more of that," Stoudemire said. "We're just getting started."
Still, Stoudemire -- and the team, for that matter -- has much work to do with guarding pick-and-rolls. They allowed another opposing starting point guard (Jeff Teague) to go off and the Hawks to shoot 60 percent. Defense is where Stoudemire, along with his finishing teammates -- Felton, Smith, Anthony and Tyson Chandler -- can make an even bigger impact down the stretch.
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