NEW YORK -- Figuring out how to work in a star on a team riding a hot streak is a luxury problem.
A few weeks ago, when the NewYork Knicks had the Eastern Conference's best record and were dropping in 3-pointers with ease, incorporating Amar'e Stoudemire after his knee surgery seemed like it was going to be a major issue.
Stoudemire's return was the attention-grabbing event New Year's Day at Madison Square Garden, but his rusty and non-impactful debut was just an ancillary factor in the Knicks' 105-100 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
It was the Knicks' fourth loss in the past six games and the habits and the lineups they used to get off to a tremendous start over the season's first six weeks have noticeably eroded. With the San Antonio Spurs due in New York on Thursday night, things are not getting any simpler, either.
For the record, Stoudemire was 3-of-8 shooting for six points in 17 minutes, though he showed good lift in getting all three buckets on dunks. His lateral movement and overall awareness were deficient, however, as he was repeatedly beaten on defense and to rebounds. He was also the fourth man off the bench, behind J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Steve Novak.
One of Stoudemire's hoops was off a slick pick-and-roll with Carmelo Anthony, a little catnip for the crowd which returned to focus on whether the two highly paid stars can execute together. The Knicks long for the time when that can take its place as a central complication that grips local talk radio shows.
Same goes for a discussion of Anthony's MVP candidacy, which couldn't be broached even on a night when he scored 45 points while playing for the first time in a week because of a sore knee.
On the most basic front, the Knicks' 3-point waterfall has slowed. This was predictable; they were touching historic accuracy and volume earlier in the season. They were third in the league in percentage in November at 43 percent, then slipped to 11th in December at 37 percent. January started with a 10-of-37 effort and the reduced fun level is bleeding into other areas.
"If we miss a couple shots defensively we sometimes hang our heads," Jason Kidd said. "Make or miss, we have to play defense because that's what got us those 21 wins so far."
After sometimes brushing off defensive concerns last month, coach Mike Woodson is now in full alert mode. Both before and after the game he spun questions about Stoudemire and other queries into defensive conversations. The numbers show that after starting off being one of the league's better teams over the first month of the season, the Knicks have now plunged to the top 10 in numerous categories.
Over the past few weeks the Knicks have allowed the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings and now the Blazers -- three teams not known for offensive output -- to have huge scoring nights. To that point, it was a nice win for Portland. Now at two games over .500, the Blazers are one of the season's surprises. They came in winners of seven of 10 games, but eight of those were at home and this was supposed to be the start of a gut check on the road. They passed this one.
But giving up 105 points and 51 percent shooting as the Knicks did was more of a defensive red light than anything. Perimeter players Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard tore the Knicks up with basic pick-and-roll plays.
"Forget the offense," Woodson grumbled. "We scored enough points. Defensively, we are not where we were earlier in the season."
Not having Raymond Felton hasn't helped, either. Out at least a month with a broken finger, Felton's ability to penetrate and pressure defenses is missed. After excelling as the spot-up shooting off-guard who occasionally started the offense, Kidd has been moved back to point guard, where he doesn't seem to be as effective at this point in his career with this particular team. This is especially true on the defensive end, where Kidd is excellent as a helper and a passing-lane blocker but can be a liability when in the center of a basic screen-roll.
Portland led by as much as 19 points, but the Knicks nearly pulled off a comeback in the fourth quarter, when Woodson played Kidd and reserve point guard Pablo Prigioni together in the fourth quarter as he has done with Kidd and Felton all season.
But Woodson struggled to figure out who was going to guard Lillard in that lineup, and Portland's rookie point guard had seven clutch points down the stretch. Felton's absence could very well outweigh a Stoudemire return in the short run.
There's no doubt that at some juncture the Stoudemire-Anthony thing will become a touchstone. Tuesday was their 73rd game together, including playoffs, and the record stands at 31-42. Stoudemire coming off the bench so Anthony can remain as the starting power forward figures to eventually be worth studying.
Just not now.
"We're having a tough time right now," Tyson Chandler said. "We are getting away from our principles and second-guessing ourselves. We have to stick with what has been working."