Knicks winning battles, but war looms

NEW YORK -- This much you probably know, or are starting to realize about Amare Stoudemire: He is playing the best basketball of any big man in the NBA right now, he is looking like the single best free agent signing of the ballyhooed class of 2010, and he is already a strong candidate for MVP consideration -- something the Madison Square Garden crowd alerted him to with a chant of those very letters Wednesday night.

This you probably didn't know: He is a young man constantly searching to expand his mind, whether by traveling to Israel last summer to learn about Jewish culture and heritage, taking geography and world history classes at Arizona State after he became a member of the Phoenix Suns straight out of high school, or spending his free time these days paging through the ancient Chinese military strategy book "Sun Tzu: Art of War."

"It's about how to win a war without really going to war," Stoudemire said after putting on another dominant fourth-quarter performance for the New York Knicks, scoring 18 of his 34 points in the final period of a 113-110 victory over Toronto that gave his team 11 wins in their past 12 games.

"He has a very inquisitive mind," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He always wants to better himself, and I think that has helped him get into a position where he's a great, becoming a great leader or is a great leader, and he just becomes it more every year because he's not satisfied with what he has off the court, or on the court."

Well, Stoudemire had to be feeling a heightened sense of satisfaction after this one, becoming only the second player in team history to score 30 or more points in six consecutive games. The only player ahead of him in the team archives is Willie Naulls, a forward who spent several seasons with the Knicks in the late 1950s and early 60s and scored 30-plus points over a seven-game stretch from Feb. 22-March 4, 1962.

Stoudemire (34 points, 14 rebounds) and Raymond Felton (28 points, 11 assists) led the Knicks (14-9) five games over .500 at the latest point in a season since 2000-01 as they continued to feed on a cupcake schedule that includes one more munchable morsel, the Washington Wizards on Friday night, before the quality of the opposing teams starts getting a whole lot different.

Like the game two nights earlier against Minnesota, this one wasn't easy. But the Knicks got it done at the end as coach Mike D'Antoni declined to call one of his three remaining timeouts after Andrea Bargnani (41 points) hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. Instead, Felton brought the ball up court, the Knicks positioned themselves to run a high pick-and-roll with Felton and Stoudemire, with Danilo Gallinari as a safety valve in the corner.

Felton dribbled the 24-second clock down and then launched a 3-pointer that skidded and bounced on the rim four or five times before dropping through. Bargnani got off a semi-open 3 at the buzzer, but it was short.

"At the start of the year, one of our problems as closing out fourth quarters, but I'm watching film and I'm learning, and it's been working for me the past few games," Stoudemire said. "These games have showed our heart and how we feel about ourselves and how good we believe we can be."

In a way, there is an analogy to be drawn between the book Stoudemire is reading and the road the Knicks are going down, winning the battle of making themselves relevant without yet having fought a war.

Of their 23 games, 14 have been against teams with losing records. Of their past six opponents, only one -- New Orleans -- was a plus-.500 team, and the Hornets played that night without All-Star forward David West.

They've seen the Raptors three times already, the Bobcats twice, and they've yet to cross paths with a quality team from Florida, California or Texas, where a majority of the league's elite can be found.

"We have a great group, and we'll see if we're good enough. I don't know. I hope we are, and I know we're playing well," D'Antoni said of an upcoming stretch, beginning Sunday against Denver, in which the Knicks will get to measure themselves against the Nuggets, Celtics, Heat, Thunder, Bulls, Heat and Magic before the month comes to a close.

"They've been together two or three years, four years, and we've got a lot of young guys, and it's a process. There's going to be some stumbling blocks, but over time well get here.

"Hopefully it's next week, but I don't know that," D'Antoni said. "But yeah, you can build on this, and where we are is ahead of what we kind of thought, and we'll see how far ahead we are and how far we have to go."

Chris Sheridan is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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