NEW YORK -- Mike Woodson might have been a game or three too late to show this side of his character, the cold, unforgiving side that left Jason Kidd and Amar'e Stoudemire on the bench for the entire second half of a playoff game the New York Knicks had no choice but to win.
But show it Woodson most certainly did Thursday night, when he effectively told two prominent stars -- including one of the greatest point guards of all time -- that they might as well get comfortable in their chairs, butter up their popcorn and watch an ex-D-Leaguer who had chased his hoop dreams all over Europe play for their season.
Chris Copeland, 29-year-old rookie, is a zillion-to-one character borrowed from a Hollywood script, his long braids flying along with his longer jumpers. It's hard to believe in a Chris Copeland, cut twice from second-division teams in Spain, a guy not even pulling in half a mil, and so Woodson didn't believe in him in Game 4. The coach removed Copeland 29 seconds after he made a 3 early in the fourth quarter, and he was rightfully ripped for it.
Woodson wouldn't make that same mistake again in Game 5, not with the Indiana Pacers holding a 3-1 series lead and not with all of New York prepared to pounce on the man who had done so much good work after replacing his overmatched boss, Mike D'Antoni. In fact, the Knicks' coach wouldn't repeat any of his unforced errors from earlier in the series, when it felt like Frank Vogel-Mike Woodson was as big a mismatch as Roy Hibbert-Tyson Chandler.
The Knicks gave away the second-round opener at home, didn't come to play after surviving their emotionally draining series with Boston, and that was an indictment of Woodson. So were the nonadjustments to Indiana's size, the premature burial of Pablo Prigioni on Tuesday night, the inability to inspire J.R. Smith, the lineup change that didn't change anything, and the failure to match Indiana's desperation and intensity.
Oh, and the insistence on playing Stoudemire and Kidd, too. Jason Kidd was sort of understandable because he's Jason Kidd, the NBA's resident Yoda. But Stoudemire, back from a second knee surgery and promising to be as rusty as he appeared upon his first return in January? Woodson's allegiance to him made little win-or-else sense.
So there Woodson stood inside Madison Square Garden for Game 5, staring at the potential for complete humiliation. If the Knicks lost this one, they would have lost the series by surrendering two home games to a lower-seeded opponent that reminds nobody of the world champion Miami Heat. Sure, Carmelo Anthony would have assumed some blame as a franchise player with a miserable postseason past, but Woodson's credibility would have taken a bigger hit.
He was 0-8 in two second-round series as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, a record that got him fired. A quickie five-game loss to the Pacers wouldn't have cost Woodson his job with the Knicks, but it would have raised serious questions about his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.
Maybe that thought hit Woodson like a blind pick at halftime of what would be an 85-75 victory. The Knicks were up six, but it felt like they should have been up more.
Anthony had picked up an early technical, so he was one blown fuse from ejection. Kidd had missed his only shot, a breakaway layup that cruelly spun in and out and extended an amazing scoreless streak that dates back to April 23. Stoudemire had made a couple of foul shots and grabbed a couple of rebounds in his 6:34 of playing time but looked like an old man shooing a pigeon in the park when trying to scoop a ball he kicked away.
Right then and there, Woodson decided Kidd and Stoudemire could reminisce about their 15 combined All-Star Game appearances for the balance of the night while Copeland and the rest played on.
"I'm the coach," Woodson said after he'd successfully booked Game 6 in Indianapolis. "Coaching is a feel, man. I mean, it's not always what the players want. At the end of the day it's about winning. That's all I'm in it for.
"I'm sure Kidd and Amar'e probably wanted to play, but I don't think that they're going to complain about anything."
No, the complaining came from the visitors' side of the Garden. The Pacers outrebounded the Knicks by only three this time, and they missed 14 of their 33 foul shots. "If we make our free throws," Vogel said, "it's a different ballgame."
And if Game 4 hero George Hill hadn't been KO'd by a concussion suffered in that game, maybe the Pacers already would be talking about taking their talents to you-know-where.
But South Beach and the conference finals remain on hold. "I think we've got plenty to beat the Knicks with or without George Hill," Vogel maintained.
He'll find out soon enough. Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson was pulling a J.R. Smith and blaming himself for a Game 5 that saw the Lincoln High legend out of Brooklyn miss six of seven shots.
"We blew it," Stephenson said. "This was a big game in their building, and we didn't bring it."
For a change, Woodson's team was the one that brought it. Anthony scored 28 points (although on 28 shots), Raymond Felton played a strong floor game in the second half, and Copeland sank three of his four 3s, scored 13 high-energy points and tucked his 15 minutes of fame inside nearly 20 minutes of playing time.
Smith? He didn't quite bust out of his own slump, but he did take a few baby steps in the right direction hours after Rihanna, a reported love interest, posted a message to a Knicks fan on Instagram that said the sixth man kept misfiring because he was "hungover from clubbing every night during playoffs!!"
Asked before Game 5 about that posting, Woodson said, "That's the unknown. When you're coaching, you try to keep everything in house and nice and neat, and sometimes it gets away from you. J.R.'s had his ups and downs here of late, but J.R. is still a big piece to our puzzle."
A piece that came unglued in the Boston series and hasn't been the same since. The Smith ejection and suspension hardened the perception that the Knicks, Woodson's Knicks, are too quick to lose their composure when things go south.
The coach didn't get tough with Stoudemire after he punched the fire extinguisher case in Miami last spring, and he didn't get tough with Stoudemire through the first two and a half games of his latest comeback, when a slow and uncertain Amar'e did little to help his team.
That changed for Woodson and Stoudemire in the middle of Game 5, just as it changed for Woodson and Kidd. "I will never kick J-Kidd to the curb," the coach had sworn the day before he kicked the Hall of Famer-to-be to that same curb.
So Woodson showed New Yorkers the kind of toughness he didn't get a chance to show them as a first-round pick of the Knicks in 1980, a year before they traded him to the Nets. Woodson had a good career as an NBA player, and so far he's had a good career as an NBA coach.
But he's said more than once he wants to be great, not good. And truth is, all Mike Woodson did in Game 5 was redeem his earlier second-round sins.
If the coach scores two more victories over the Pacers, he'll do a lot better than that.