NEW YORK –- A 23-point Knicks lead was vanishing into the Garden air Wednesday night.
Mike Woodson put the ball -- and perhaps his job -- in Carmelo Anthony's hands. With the Chicago Bulls slowly chipping away at the Knicks’ lead, Anthony missed 5 of 6 shots and had a turnover. The Garden crowd groaned with each failed Knicks possession, and the Bulls tied the game at 74.
Knicks fans could taste yet another bitter defeat. But then something unexpected happened. Amar'e Stoudemire came to the rescue, showing flashes of his old self. He came up with a big steal. He drilled a 16-footer to give the Knicks a two-point lead with 2:34 left. He grabbed a key defensive rebound before turning in perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game by altering Marquis Teague's layup attempt into a miss with 1:45 left.
In just over a minute, Stoudemire made four critical plays that helped the Knicks pull out an 83-78 victory over the Bulls. He also helped harass the Bulls into another late turnover.
The forgotten Stoudemire reminded everyone he still has some mileage left in those creaky knees after all. And if he can provide this kind of lift off the bench and give Anthony some timely support, the Knicks' outlook for the season will improve considerably.
“This is kind of a short-memory league,” Stoudemire said when asked if people had forgotten what he can do. “It is kind of out of sight, out of mind.”
Stoudemire may not be able to keep this up with knees that have undergone three procedures in 12 months. But Wednesday, Stoudemire played 30 big minutes, hitting 7 of 11 shots, scoring 14 points, grabbing nine rebounds, blocking one shot and coming up with two steals.
When Anthony was struggling to put the Bulls away, Stoudemire provided him with the help he’s been looking for. He gave the Knicks another inside presence to go with Anthony.
“The last couple of nights, Amar’e’s been stepping up big time, giving us another option we can go to offensively,” Anthony said. “Defensively, he’s been stepping up, taking the challenge out there. And we’ve been having his back defensively. We just want him to continue getting better. We got to help him get better. We got to build together.”
Stoudemire is intent on showing everybody just how much he has left in his tank. Woodson says Stoudemire is free of the minutes restriction he was limited by earlier this season, and so far the power forward has responded with his three best games of the year.
Sunday against Boston, the 12-year vet was one of the few Knicks to show a pulse, scoring a season-high 17 points in 21 minutes during a 41-point loss. On Tuesday in a loss at Cleveland, Stoudemire hit 7 of 10 shots and had 15 points.
The real test came Wednesday. How would Stoudemire look in the second of a back-to-back after a then-season-high 27 minutes? Woodson told reporters before the game against the Bulls that there was no restriction on Stoudemire’s playing time anymore. And he wasn’t joking.
Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin gave Woodson everything they had inside, turning back the clock to 2001 and providing big minutes, especially on the defensive end.
The odds are against this happening frequently. But Stoudemire wants you to doubt him. It gives him more motivation to return to his old form even if that may be against all odds.
He has worked tirelessly to prove to people and himself that he is not done, that he isn’t as close to retirement as you think.
“Just continue to work and put in the work in practice and the weight room and all that stuff that guys don’t really get a chance to see,” Stoudemire said. “That is kind of my M.O. until I hang the shoes up.”
Many Knicks fans might’ve been hoping at the start of the season that Stoudemire would retire so the Knicks could get some cap relief. But Stoudemire has no such plans as long as his knees hold up.
Despite a slow and frustrating start under a minutes restriction, Stoudemire kept saying he believed he can return to the dominant player he used to be once he gets more playing time.
This week, he’s averaging 26 minutes. He’s shooting 67.8 percent from the field and scoring 15.3 points a game. And perhaps most surprising, he’s done all that in three games in four days.
“I’m getting back into a rhythm, getting back to my old self, my confidence is starting to rise a little more,” Stoudemire said. “The more I play, the more I practice, the higher the confidence grows.”
The Knicks came into this season planning to preserve Stoudemire for the long haul and a potential postseason run.
Now things have changed slightly. Woodson needs as much as he can get out of Stoudemire until Tyson Chandler returns. But Woodson has to make sure he doesn’t overwork Stoudemire.
“The big picture is still there,” says Woodson, who has another back-to-back set of games Friday and Saturday. “He played 27 [Tuesday] and [30 on Wednesday]. If he can do that consistently, I won't even consider playing him 30-plus minutes. It would be stupid to do that.
“He's kind of back to where he was a year ago when he was averaging right at 14 and six to seven rebounds. If he can stay in that neighborhood for us, that's a nice piece coming off the bench.”
A nice, unexpected piece -- and STAT plans to deliver more clutch plays as long as he physically can.
“As far as how I feel now, I feel great, I feel strong,” Stoudemire said. “But I am never satisfied and want to continue to work and continue to get better.
“Whatever it takes, whatever my body tells me,” Stoudemire said. “At this point in time, I think I’m a specialist in anatomy. I think I got it all figured out from that standpoint. But if my body tells me I can go, then I’m gonna go.”