ORLANDO, Fla. -- Patrick Ewing was shaking his head outside the winners' locker room, half wondering how Eastern Conference contenders will stop the holy hoops trinity that is the New York Knicks, half wishing he had the help then that Amare Stoudemire has now.
Now an assistant with the Orlando Magic, Ewing seemed genuinely impressed by the new and improved Knicks, if only because he forever dealt in the currency of optimism in and around the Madison Square Garden paint.
Virtually. Once mocked for guaranteeing parades and conquests of the Jordan Bulls that never happened, Ewing sounded more hopeful about these Knicks than he sounded about his own Knicks back in the day.
"Those three guys are so talented," Ewing said after his first look at the kind of top-heavy lineup Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld never delivered him. "Thank God we were able to do some things in the second half in order to get the win."
Before the game, after the game, Ewing wanted to talk about his son, Patrick Jr., a D-League wing who is better than a good 15-20 percent of the bench players in the NBA. But the subject kept moving back to what Stoudemire has and what Ewing wished he had.
Anthony and Billups have arrived in the middle of Stoudemire's prime. No, it isn't the same as Latrell Sprewell arriving when Ewing's legs were about to give in.
"I had good guys with me," Ewing said, "and I'd never take anything away from them. I had John [Starks], Allan [Houston], Spree, [Charles] Oakley. But none of those guys were of the caliber of Carmelo. I didn't have a Carmelo."
On Tuesday night, the Knicks didn't have a Carmelo either, not the Carmelo who took it to LeBron James in Miami. Anthony shot 8-for-24 and missed his three field goal attempts of the fourth quarter, when the Magic ran the Knicks off the floor while their whippet-quick point guard, Jameer Nelson, morphed into Tiny Archibald and ripped off 11 straight points.
"We are not totally there yet," Stoudemire said, "and that's to be expected."
Yes it is. The post-trade Knicks are 0-2 following emotionally draining victories, losing in Cleveland after Anthony's grand Garden debut and allowing Orlando 37 fourth-quarter points after putting the defensive screws to LeBron and friends Sunday night.
Hey, the Gallinari-Chandler-Felton-Mozgov Knicks would have taken a split on this Florida swing, too. So blowing what was an 11-point lead late in the third quarter and cowering in the presence of Dwight Howard (30 points, 16 rebounds, 5 blocks) and his video game-like muscles didn't represent the greatest source of concern.
Billups' injury did.
The quarterback was good for 30 points and a bunch of assists, rebounds and steals while managing a brutally physical game devoid of any redeeming social value. Billups has a visionary's feel for the rhythms of a ballgame, and when he sensed that the officials were in the mood to hand out 97 foul shots, he found a way to take 20 of them, making 18.
But when Howard's knee collided with Billups' left thigh in the final minutes, Billups' thigh lost a unanimous decision. He left the game and left the Knicks with no hope of a comeback, not with the likes of Toney Douglas and Shawne Williams firing away from the perimeter.
Four games down and it's already clear the Knicks can't function without Billups on the floor. "Of course I've been kneed a few times," he said. "But never this bad."
Billups staggered about the locker room with an old man's limp, called his injury a "pretty deep contusion" that felt "real sore," and agreed he would need to feel a ton better to play against the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday night.
"Billups is huge," Ewing said. "People keep talking about him being a throw-in in that trade, but this guy has won a championship and he showed tonight that he's a big key for them."
Billups gave the Knicks their last lead of the night -- of course he did. He made a pro's pro move by jumping into a scrambling Nelson to earn three free throws that he would make for a 93-92 lead with 7:31 left.
But then Howard scored on a dunk and stuffed an Anthony shot, leading to a Jason Richardson 3-pointer and the unraveling of everything the Knicks built Sunday night in South Beach.
Howard spent the game advancing his league MVP candidacy, his absurd physique making Stoudemire look about as small as a referee's whistle. Before he wiped out the Knicks' front line, forced the visitors to surround him in the lane, and allowed Nelson and Ryan Anderson their open looks, Howard poured a cup of ice water on the notion that he -- and not Chris Paul or Deron Williams -- could be the Knicks' free-agent catch in the summer of 2012.
"New York's a beautiful city to visit," Howard said, "but it's too cold for me."
He went on to say that these Knicks are better than those they replaced. Like his big man of a coach, Ewing, Howard raved about Billups' leadership and maintained he was a quarterback highly likely to make compatible receivers out of Stoudemire and Anthony.
"I think he can kind of settle those two guys down," Howard said. "When you have two guys who score the ball as much as they do, you want to try to make both of those guys happy. As a point guard, I think he knows exactly how to get those guys the ball.
"It's going to take some time, but they're going to be a very good team."
When Howard was done crushing that very good team, freeing up Nelson on a series of high pick-and-rolls, Ewing greeted a visitor in the hallway and went on about the club he anchored in a different life.
"They are definitely good enough to get hot and go on a run in the playoffs," Ewing said.
It wasn't another guarantee from the Big Fella, but it sounded good coming from him all the same.