STAT starring in starting role

It seems like Carmelo Anthony has been through it all with Amar'e Stoudemire.

He’s seen Stoudemire go through three knee surgeries, several months of rehab and setback after setback as a Knick.

So maybe more than anyone else in the Knicks' locker room, Anthony loves what he's seen from Stoudemire of late.

“He has been playing unbelievable,” Anthony said after Stoudemire scored 23 points in the Knicks' win over Philadelphia, their fourth straight. “Offensively and defensively, he has been working. He is a guy that, now, we can throw the ball in to and [he can] make something happen. We believe in him to make plays.”

They believe.

That may sound simple, but the phrase carries a lot of weight for Stoudemire, because the Knicks haven't always been able to believe in the veteran power forward over the past two seasons.

He’s given them stretches of brilliance at times. But those awe-inspiring performances have been followed invariably by another knee injury.

“It’s been tough,” Stoudemire admitted earlier this season.

Lately, though, Stoudemire has been healthy and productive -- and that's made a world of difference for the Knicks.

Since Mike Woodson inserted Stoudemire into the starting lineup five games ago, he’s scored 18 points per game on 61 percent shooting. He’s pulled down 6.6 rebounds and blocked 1.4 shots in 27 minutes. The Knicks have outscored opponents by an average of 11 points per game while Stoudemire’s on the floor.

“I think the key is playing inside-out with STAT,” J.R. Smith said. “He’s a tough [cover] on the block and once we get him in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations, it’s going to be hard to guard him.”

Stoudemire’s play has been an important factor in the Knicks’ recent rise up the Eastern Conference standings.

Monday’s win left New York in sole possession of ninth place in the conference. The Knicks have won four of five since Stoudemire entered the starting lineup and they trail the eighth-place Hawks by just 3 &frac12; games.

“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time,” Mike Woodson said. “We dug such a big hole, man. And now we’re fighting.”

Stoudemire's fingerprints were all over Monday's win.

The Knicks trailed the lowly Sixers by 12 in the first quarter, and the home crowd began to get restless. You could almost hear the fans wondering where Phil Jackson was to save them. But Stoudemire suddenly came alive, scoring eight points in the second quarter to help the Knicks tie the score at 61 at the half.

He added nine more after halftime to lift New York to a much-needed win.

Amar'e finished 9-for-10 from the floor and earned eight trips to the free throw line.

“We played through STAT,” Woodson said. “We got it to him in the pick-and-roll and that opened things up for other guys.”

Not bad for a guy who was limited to 10 minutes per game earlier in the season in an effort to protect his oft-injured knees.

The elephant in the room for Stoudemire, of course, is his future with the team. He's in the fourth year of a five-year, $100 million contract that has handicapped the Knicks' financial situation. The team will probably do everything it can to get his expiring contract off the books in the offseason or before next year's trade deadline.

But Stoudemire isn’t getting caught up in any of that for now. He’s perfectly content to enjoy the moment.

“This feels great,” he said late Monday night. “I’ve been working extremely hard to get back to my normal self. My confidence is there -- it never really left. It’s just a matter of working hard and getting back to top shape. So far so good.”

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