NEW YORK -- Amare Stoudemire wanted this from the start -- this city, this franchise, this burden, this game. He was the first man in, the star who embraced the very thing that chased LeBron James to South Beach, and there was no way a bad back would keep him from shepherding his first season to the grave.
So the big man sucked down some Advil and prepared himself for a fight. "The only way I would sit this one out," Stoudemire said before Game 4, "was if I couldn't walk."
Stoudemire was at his Garden locker, his workplace, looking and sounding like he belonged under a hard hat. He was asked if he could absorb the contact he avoided in Game 3, when the prize $100 million catch would've given it all back to play a game of two-hand touch instead, and suddenly Stoudemire's eyes lit up the room.
"Yeah, I'm going to look forward to the contact today," he said. "It's going to be an interesting game."
And it was all of that, a much more interesting game because Stoudemire made it onto the floor. The Boston Celtics were going to win this series, everyone knew that. But Stoudemire was going to finish what he started, and everyone knew that, too.
The Celtics won by a 101-89 count, sweeping the first-round series, if only because Rajon Rondo makes the Big Three a Big Four, no matter how often Mike D'Antoni played the fool in a vain attempt to diminish Rondo's genius at the point.
Carmelo Anthony scored 32 and it hardly mattered. The New York Knicks didn't have Chauncey Billups or Amare Stoudemire, not the real one, anyway, and now Jim Dolan has to make decisions on D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh, the coach and GM.
Walsh should be a slam dunk; D'Antoni not so much. But in the end, with the greater likelihood that Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson will be eager and well-rested free agents after next season, not this one, the smart play is to return D'Antoni and judge him in the spring of 2012, lockout or no lockout.
At times during his postgame news conference, D'Antoni sounded like he was giving a farewell address, especially when he talked about the teen wonder he had in Phoenix, Stoudemire, who was all grown up the second time around.
"He is an unbelievable physical talent that has molded into a great man and leader," D'Antoni said. "I think everybody in the NBA tries to show leadership on and off the court, but it is up to the individual person to grab hold of it and he really grabbed hold of it.
"I don't know what the future holds, but he was the first guy to make the step and took it on his back and then shared the spotlight with Melo."
Earlier, D'Antoni talked about his team and his stars as though they belonged to someone else. "I would think with [Stoudemire] and Carmelo going forward, the Knicks are in good shape."
Stoudemire is most responsible for elevating the Knicks, a practical joke around the league, into a relevant playoff team, if not a true contender. After taking the money meant for LeBron James, Stoudemire called himself a pioneer, announced that "the Knicks are back," and spoke of starting "a dynasty-approach program here."
The words were played to a laugh track, at least until Stoudemire dropped the Knicks onto his broad shoulders in Atlas form.
Across the first half of the season, the home crowd chanted for him to be named the league MVP. Stoudemire proved Steve Nash needed him as much as he needed Nash, and he chastised teammates when he suspected they were growing too comfortable with losing, just like the Knicks who preceded them.
Truth be told, neither Stoudemire nor D'Antoni were itching for a reunion, not after they'd clashed here and there in Phoenix. But during the recruiting period they hugged it out over breakfast, and D'Antoni left the meeting telling his bosses that the player had matured and needed to be signed.
"I didn't realize how good he would be in tough situations," D'Antoni said. "When we were 3-8 he could have gone south on us. When he has a bunch of rookies playing with him and encouraging them and giving them his muscles, his strength and his will to win, you can't imagine that."
D'Antoni was rolling like he rarely rolls. No giggles or silly responses to serious questions. On the subject of Amare Stoudemire, the coach was speaking from the heart.
"I just don't think we can congratulate him enough," D'Antoni said.
The fans sure tried. They watched the diminished Stoudemire score 19 points and grab 12 rebounds in 44 painful minutes. They watched him miss 15 of 20 shots, and they watched him earn a technical by protecting a teammate and pushing a Celtic.
More than anything, they watched Stoudemire give them everything his wounded body had.
"Determination," Stoudemire called it.
"Amare is as blue collar as they come," Rivers said.
So before Game 4, after telling a circle of reporters that the Advil had done the trick, Stoudemire put on the very socks and shoes he couldn't put on in the days before Game 3.
He said on Saturday he wouldn't play unless the pain subsided, but nobody who knew Stoudemire believed he'd sit this one out. On Sunday, he knew he had to play. He knew he had to go down the way any accountable Knick would.
"Amare started the year the way he ended it," D'Antoni said. "All heart."
He took to New York and its people like no newcomer since Mark Messier, and handled the captain's responsibilities with Messier's dignity and grace.
"We wanted to do more," Stoudemire said, "but 'the Knicks is back' statement is definitely true, and I think the league knows it now."
In the closing seconds, the Garden stood and saluted its vanquished team. It sure sounded like the fans were directing their cheers toward one injured Knick, the one whose resolve was plenty stronger than his back.