Carmelo Anthony poured in 35 points despite a stomach virus that kept him out of the Knicks' morning shootaround. Mercurial J.R. Smith was raining in 3-pointers again. Center Tyson Chandler had been a monster on the boards all night.
And yet, Chandler still caught himself looking at how Stephen Curry was keeping the Golden State Warriors in Wednesday's game at Madison Square Garden and muttering to himself in the final seconds, "No. This kid is not going to singlehandedly beat us tonight."
Curry nearly did on a lights-out, 54-point night on which he played all 48 minutes. But the Knicks held on for a wild 109-105 win that -- rousing as it was -- still underscored what the marathon NBA season keeps revealing about them: Heart might not be enough to carry them as far as they looked like they might go earlier this year.
Reality stinks that way.
The sight of guards burning the Knicks like Curry did has been just one of the trends that has made them a .500 team for the past two months. That's one month longer than they looked terrific when they were tearing off to an 18-5 start that featured two wins over the Miami Heat -- the same Heat team that has won 12 straight and will roll into the Garden Sunday determined to snatch back the early validation that those two losses conferred on the Knicks far, far more than anything else the Knicks have done.
Sunday's visit by Miami had the potential to get ugly -- as in, hide-the-children ugly -- even before the Knicks announced Wednesday that Rasheed Wallace is out with a broken foot that will require surgery.
All of a sudden, the Knicks aren't just playing to prove their November excellence wasn't a mirage. They're chasing ghosts, too. Wallace? Gone eight weeks. Marcus Camby? Still out. Jason Kidd's jumper? That's still AWOL after his 0-for-4 skunking last night. Knicks defensive stopper Iman Shumpert, who's still working his way back from an ACL surgery? He was the Knicks defender Curry abused most before Shumpert finally gained some revenge with a huge steal near the game's end.
All of which has left Knicks head coach Mike Woodson stripped of his fallback line that the Knicks could "absolutely" still be a contender "when we get everybody healthy again."
That's not going to happen now.
Woodson did say he might start using 40-year-old forward Kurt Thomas more, along with 35-year-old Kenyon Martin, who had been out of the league all season until the Knicks signed him over the weekend to a 10-day contract.
Thomas picked up yet another DNP against the Warriors. Woodson, as is his wont, gave only seven players significant minutes, which showed just how much Woodson knew the Knicks absolutely had to have this win.
"Had to have this game," Woodson agreed.
The wailing that's accompanied the Knicks' 16-15 record since Jan. 1 would've gotten really loud if the Knicks hadn't won.
The Warriors played like they wanted to make Mark Jackson's first return to the Garden as a head coach a happy one. They know the whole backstory of how the ex-St. John's and ex-Knicks player was interviewed but passed over by the Knicks when they hired Mike D'Antoni as their coach instead. They knew Jackson's wife flew in from California for the game and that his mother was in the stands. When Jackson himself was asked before the game about not getting what he's always described as his "dream" job coaching the Knicks, Jackson was too classy to complain or mention his Warriors began the night with exactly the same number of wins (33).
Jackson has the baby-faced Curry playing like a tough-guy assassin. By the time the game was deep into the fourth quarter and both teams were trading baskets and big shots, all of the Knicks -- not just Chandler -- seemed determined to not let Curry steal the night.
But Curry stayed on fire anyway. He blew by Shumpert and the trapping defenses Woodson sent at him. "It somewhat backfired -- he beat all that," Woodson said. Curry kept losing the Knicks off the dribble. He was throwing in so many fallaway (even falling down) 3-point bombs that the Garden crowd was torn between groaning and oohing and aahing in admiration.
"He hit a couple of shots, and I don't even think he looked at the rim," Chandler said afterward, smiling and shaking his head.
So give the Knicks this: They showed a lot of heart and urgency. But the fact that they still had trouble getting by a Warriors team that had played the night before, was without suspended All-Star forward David Lee and isn't a good road club even under the best of circumstances, was not a ringing endorsement of what to expect when the Knicks' competition spikes up against Miami Sunday, or when they dive into the rest of their murderous schedule in March.
Even Friday's visit to Washington isn't a gimme. John Wall is another guard who's torched the Knicks this season.
The Knicks weren't going to win the title even with the 38-year-old Wallace. But the bad news that he's out was another reminder that the Knicks' offseason philosophy of surrounding Anthony with so many 35-to-40-year-olds, plus Amare Stoudemire (who's on a 30-minute-per-night limit) looks shakier with each passing day. So does piling so much on the still-recovering Shumpert.
And it could turn disastrously bad now that they're about to play 19 games in 31 days. Five of them will come on a nine-day West Coast swing that could provide more dreary proof that those happy days of November aren't coming back.
Woodson has been loath to expand his rotation. But very soon, he's going to have to in Wallace and perhaps Camby's absence. That second-round pick the Knicks got for Ronnie Brewer -- their only move at the trade deadline -- isn't going to help them survive March, either.
So take the way the Knicks outlasted Golden State Wednesday for what it was. It was fun to watch. But the Knicks are not going to get 35 points from Anthony and a heroic 28 boards from Chandler every night.
The schedule only gets tougher from here.
And the reality checks aren't close to over.