GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Optimism was in limited supply for the New York Knicks at practice Thursday, with Amare Stoudemire absent and Chauncey Billups saying his knee felt worse, not better, after receiving a cortisone shot.
On the eve of the first playoff game at Madison Square Garden in seven years, it was looking increasingly likely that the Knicks would be going up against the Boston Celtics at less than full strength Friday when they try to avoid falling into an 0-3 hole in their first-round series.
Billups also had blood drained from his strained left knee after undergoing an MRI exam Wednesday.
"Just hoping for the best, you know? There's nothing really I can do. I gave myself my best chance, so I'm just hoping at this point," Billups said. "I just want to be able to run around out three a little bit.
"I know there's no way at this point I'm going to come back and be 100 percent, but I don't have to be 100 to come back. I just want to be able to help the team and not hurt the team, and if I can get to that point then I'll be out there," Billups said.
Stoudemire stayed home in Manhattan to receive treatment on his ailing back, which forced him to miss the second half of Game 2. The Knicks are now describing Stoudemire's ailment as a pulled muscle, and they excused him from practice because they did not want him spending two hours in a car traveling to and from the team's suburban practice facility.
"He won't know until he wakes up. He's had a few spasms, but I think he's feeling better today. We'll work him out tomorrow morning. He'll get here, get in the pool and work, and we'll make a determination. But I'm pretty optimistic," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It just depends on how he moves and how he feels, and when you have a bad back we can't have him out there at half-speed.
"So if he's ready to go, great, if not we close ranks and go forward," D'Antoni said, adding that Shawne Williams will start if Stoudemire is unable to play.
On Billups, D'Antoni said: "A little bit less optimistic. A little bit of a tougher road to hoe.
"He hurts more. He's going 'Ooh' more than Amare's going 'ooh.'"
Despite the uncertainly surrounding two of the team's three best players, there was still some levity at practice as Carmelo Anthony repeatedly passed the ball to Jared Jeffries in the low post and then yelled "Dunk it!"
It was a reference to the key Knicks possession at the end of Game 2 in which Anthony passed out of a double-team and found Jeffries open under the basket, only to have Jeffries try to thread a wraparound pass to Bill Walker than was intercepted by Kevin Garnett.
Anthony noted (humorously) that he was criticized for making that pass, just as he was criticized for taking a long 3-pointer with 4 seconds remaining in the Knicks' Game 1 loss, and said if he had a chance to do it all over again, he still would have fired the pass to an open teammate under the basket.
In Game 2, that teammate was Jeffries because starting center Ronny Turiaf had told the coaches during the fourth quarter that he was experiencing acute pain in his knee. D'Antoni is hopeful he can go in Game 3 as well.
Also betraying no regrets for the way the fourth quarter unfolded was D'Antoni, who heaped praise on Walker for the defensive job he did in helping the Knicks come back from a seven-point deficit at the start of the quarter. Although Walker shot 0-for-11, the Knicks outscored Boston by 10 points in Walker's 33 minutes; whereas starting shooting guard Landry Fields was a minus-13 in his 15 minutes of playing time.
"I thought that was the best 0-for-11 performance I've ever seen. I thought he played great, his defense on Paul [Pierce] was great, his toughness, his rebounding, his ability to hit shots -- he didn't hit any, but his spacing, I just thought he was one of our better players out there,' D'Antoni said.
The Knicks took Wednesday off after their Game 2 loss at Boston, and both Stoudemire and Billups underwent MRI exams that confirmed the initial diagnosis of each of their injuries.
This is uncharted territory for both players, as Stoudemire said he has never experienced a back injury before, and Billups said he had never dealt with any serious knee issues.
"Without those two guys, I think me, personally, I have to step up and do it all to try to win. But at the same time we got guys who will have to step up on the team," Anthony said.
Anthony scored 42 points in 14-for-30 shooting in Game 2, but aside from Jeffries (5-for-7) and Toney Douglas (5-for-16), no other New York player had more than two field goals.
For the final 9:06, D'Antoni went with the unorthodox closing lineup of Anthony, Douglas, Walker, Jeffries and Roger Mason, and the Knicks were outscored by only one point over that span.
"Nobody ever said the Knicks would have had a chance to win both games in Boston," Anthony said. "I'll take that. We could have won both of those games. We could have been up 2-0 right now."
No team in NBA history has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series, and only 14 teams have come back from 0-2 deficits to win.
"It's a must win, a must-win for us. This is the hardest game by far that we've played," Anthony said.
D'Antoni said one primary point of emphasis for Game 3 will be limiting Rajon Rondo's transition opportunities. Rondo scored 12 points on coast-to-coast drives in the first 8 minutes of Game 2 after getting to the rim only three times in Game 1.
"We know it's going to be a challenge, we know that. We know they're really good," D'Antoni said. "But our confidence is that they didn't play well because we didn't let them play well, and that's going to be out mindset going in. Now they have to prove us different, and they are world champions, they could prove us differently, but we think we can do a good job on them."
Senior writer Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN.com.