Amar'e: 'Big, big, big stretch for us'

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- This week marks the first time this season that the Knicks will play three Atlantic Division rivals in a row: the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, the Boston Celtics on Jan. 24 and the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 26.

Each opponent features one of the top point guards in the East: Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, who have all picked up their play this month. While the Sixers have been struggling, the Nets are 10-2 in their past 12 games -- and are now just two games behind the Knicks in the standings -- and the Celtics are 6-2 in their past eight. The C's dropped their past two contests without starting shooting guard Avery Bradley, who's dealing with a rib injury.

Amar'e Stoudemire, who hasn't faced the Nets or Sixers this season, knows how big the week ahead is.

"Big, big, big stretch for us," he said. "Those are three tough games."

For the Knicks, it all starts with getting off to a great first quarter, which they finally did on Thursday against the Detroit Pistons, winning the game.

"We've been starting games slow in the Garden," Iman Shumpert said after Sunday's practice. "I want to make sure we get off on the right foot."

On defense, it comes down to limiting D-Will -- hello, Shumpert! -- who's improved his field goal and 3-point shooting since the Nets started their winning run on Dec. 28. He's also been speeding up the Nets' pace and attacking better, and as a result, they've been scoring closer to the basket off his dishes, thanks to Joe Johnson's baseline shooting and Brook Lopez's and Andray Blatche's inside finishes. They've reduced their reliance on long balls, instead demonstrating better spacing and ball movement on the court. Defensively, they remain just as effective.

After Friday's win over the Atlanta Hawks at the Barclays Center, Nets starting small forward Gerald Wallace said the guys are more in rhythm and pushing the ball at a faster rate.

"Brooklyn is playing extremely well," Jason Kidd said. "[Coach] P.J. [Carlesimo] has got those guys going. It was just a matter of time. Deron is making shots. He's playing at a high level, and so we're going to have our hands full [on Monday]."

Knicks coach Mike Woodson said, "They're fighting to move up and we're fighting to stay on top. So it should be a good game."

While Stoudemire doesn't expect the Garden environment to be as loud as it was when the Knicks and Nets first squared off on Nov. 26 in Brooklyn, he expects an "extremely motivated" Nets team. They lost to the 'Bockers the past two times they met.

"I don't know if you can top Game 1," he said. "That atmosphere was out of control and expectations of just that game were out the roof. So I don't know if you can top that. But I think both teams are definitely playing well, and it's going to be a great, great battle tomorrow.

"With Joe Johnson and Deron, those guys are All-Stars and I've played with Joe in Phoenix, so I know his game very well. It's going to be a pretty interesting game."

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