HoopsHabit – New York Knicks: Will Amar’e Stoudemire Ever Regain All-Star Form?

Amar’e Stoudemire used to be an intimidating dunker who worked beautifully with Steve Nash in a pick-and-roll. Now he’s barely getting minutes in New York because he can’t stay healthy. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on why Amar’e Stoudemire’s best days may be behind him.

Knicks End Playoff Drought

The New York Knicks ended an NBA record 13-game playoff losing streak and avoided a first round sweep by edging the Miami Heat in a 89-87 Game 4 victory today. Carmelo Anthony finally had an efficient shooting night, shooting over 50 percent to lead the Knicks with 41 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Amare Stoudemire, who played with padding on his injured left hand after missing Game 3, notched 20 points and 10 rebounds in his return.

After a poor first half, Melo and the Knicks made a third quarter run to enter the final period with a three point lead. The Heat didn’t exactly look like they had the killer instinct to put New York away and the Knicks capitalized on it, even though no one other than Anthony and Stoudemire scored more than seven points. J.R. Smith, who scored those seven points, had an appalling 3-for-15 shooting night and Baron Davis went down in the third quarter in the middle of New York’s run, dislocating his right kneecap. Thankfully, Mike Bibby stepped in and hit a few big 3-pointers to keep the Knicks on top. But even though it was a much-needed win for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate over the years, the likely reality is that the Heat will advance in five games. With the series shifting back to Miami and the Heat wanting to get as much rest as possible before the second round, they should return to their business-like mentality and play much better in Game 5.

Carmelo Anthony dropped 41 points and led the Knicks to a Game 4 win over the Heat.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led their team in Game 4, but lacked the championship mentality to put this inferior team away and get some extended rest time with a sweep. James and Wade came alive in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late. But even with the Heat’s lackadaisical Game 4 performance, even with Melo dropping 40 and even with Amare back on the court and playing well, the Knicks still only won by two points. So as happy a moment as it was for New York to win a playoff game and avoid being swept by LeBron and the Heat, all signs point to an absolute blowout in Game 5 in Miami. Just because Melo finally shot the ball well doesn’t mean he’ll do it again; just because Amare meshed well with Melo and was able to contribute while favoring one hand doesn’t mean it’ll happen again; and just because the Heat failed to come out with a finisher’s mentality doesn’t mean they’ll do so at home.

Miami should have swept this series. Not to take anything away from the Knicks, but there’s little excuse for letting Melo go for 40 and allowing a one-handed Amare Stoudemire to put up 20. There’s no excuse for losing the a New York team without Jeremy Lin and Iman Shmpert. It’s true that the Knicks had a lot more to play for and benefitted from an enthusiastic and victory-hungry home crowd, but if LeBron James wants to become a leader for a championship team, he needs to elevate his game in potential series-clinching moments like these. LeBron has worked hard to prove naysayers wrong and in today’s game he actually played well in the fourth quarter to keep Miami in it. But what should have been LeBron’s moment to take over, win the game and send the entire Madison Square Garden home empty-handed and heavy-hearted was stolen by Dwayne Wade’s ridiculous 3-point attempt at the buzzer. At the beginning of the season, I could understand why the Heat would stick LeBron in the corner and leave the last-minute duties to D-Wade. But LeBron has become the leader of this team with an MVP-caliber season and was playing much better at the end of this game than anyone on the floor for Miami. Believe it or not, Wade should have given the ball up to LeBron and let him decide the fate of the game. But the fact that LeBron didn’t demand it is a little worrisome; he seemed perfectly content with Wade’s decision and shot selection afterward. In a close game, the way LeBron failed to rise to the occasion and allowed his team’s fate to be decided by someone else could come back to haunt the Miami Heat against a better opponent.

The loss really doesn’t matter other than ending the Knicks’ playoff drought, but should we be concerned that LeBron didn’t get the ball at the end?

Knicks’ Playoff Hopes Extinguished

From the beginning of this New York-Miami series, it was obvious Carmelo Anthony would have to put up superstar performances every night for the Knicks to have a chance. But even after he put up 30 points to lead all scorers (in addition to nine rebounds, one assist and one steal), Miami still came out on top in authoritative fashion, 104-94. The Heat’s Game 2 victory gives them a 2-0 lead in the series and puts the Knicks in serious trouble heading back to Madison Square Garden. But what’s even more worrisome is that New York might have to play with an injured Amare Stoudemire after he suffered lacerations on his left hand from hitting the glass case enclosing a fire extinguisher in frustration after the loss. Paramedics were called to the locker room and he left the arena with his hand bandaged and his arm in a sling. So where to the Knicks go from here?

Amare Stoudemire took his frustration out on a fire extinguisher case. Unfortunately for him and the Knicks, the glass case won.

Well for starters, the Knicks are pretty much done in this series. What I thought would be a competitive first-round matchup has proven to be nothing more than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh overpowering Melo and the Knicks with their stifling defense, transition offense and sheer athletic ability. Game 2 was one superstar pitted against three and of course, the side with three is rarely going to lose that battle. Melo started off on fire, dropping 15 points on Shane Battier and the Heat in the first quarter. But Dwyane Wade kept the Heat on top with a solid first half. Without Iman Shumpert in the game to guard him, D-Wade was able to take advantage on numerous plays, cutting through the lane for easy baskets multiple times. Miami entered the locker room with a six-point lead despite LeBron not really doing much up to that point.

That’s a huge reason the Knicks don’t have a shot at winning this series: even with LeBron only putting up 19 points and Melo having a proficient scoring night, the Heat were still balanced enough to convincingly win. Miami’s bench and role players, who have been seen as huge weaknesses at times, made the difference in the game and are the main reason why there will be no upset here. No one in Miami’s big three played particularly dominant, but they didn’t need to. The three of them combined for 65 points, but it was the bench that kept Miami ahead for most of the night. New York can’t afford for Shane Battier and Mike Miller to both hit three 3-pointers and finish with 11 points apiece. They can’t allow Mario Chalmers to finish with 13. An area that should have been an advantage for the Knicks (a tiny advantage, but still an advantage, nevertheless) has turned into one of the biggest reasons it’s impossible to believe in an upset.

The final reason, aside from Miami’s big three and their solid bench contributions, is that LeBron James has been more efficient than Carmelo Anthony. Melo had a game high 30 points, but half of them came in the first quarter and he fizzled from there. LeBron only had 19, but his points came at game-changing moments, giving his team a crowd-rousing boost and extinguishing any New York momentum. Throw in the fact that Amare never woke up and that Tyson Chandler was never dominant on either end of the court and it’s easy to see why New York couldn’t make it a better game. Now with Amare possibly missing time or playing injured for the rest of the series, New York doesn’t have much hope to win. They needed consistent 3-point shooting from J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, but they haven’t gotten it. Melo had to go head-to-head with the best player in the league and be more efficient, but that hasn’t happened either. The Knicks could take one game at home with Amare out, because Melo will have more space to work and more shots to put up. They could definitely win without Amare if Novak and Smith hit a few long-range jumpers. But at this point, Miami’s big three look like they’re too powerful for this Knicks team without Jeremy Lin or Amare Stoudemire at full strength.

Carmelo Anthony scored more points, but LeBron James was more efficient and without Amare Stoudemire, New York could be done.

Blowout In Miami

On paper, my prediction that the New York Knicks would compete with the Miami Heat in this playoff series looks pretty bad after LeBron James and company dropped them in a 100-67 blowout in Game 1. But let’s slow down for just a minute. Saturday’s game in Miami was the perfect storm and literally everything that could have gone wrong for the Knicks did: Tyson Chandler was sick and looked like it, getting four fouls in the first half and playing sluggish on the defensive end; Carmelo Anthony couldn’t shoot to save his life (3-for-15); Miami’s defense disrupted the Knicks’ offensive rhythm; the referees completely disrupted the flow of the game with multiple, unnecessary technical fouls and questionable calls; Iman Shumpert went down with a knee injury; Amare Stoudemire disappeared again; Miami’s supporting cast outplayed New York’s; and LeBron James absolutely put on a clinic to close out the first half after a ridiculous “flagrant foul” on Chandler. So yeah, if you include all that in one game, you get a complete blowout.

I’m not making excuses for the Knicks, because Miami was clearly the better team today. But I will say it’s a mistake to count this New York team out after one appalling performance. While this game certainly sent a message to Melo, Amare and the rest of the Knicks, it’s only one game. The Knicks are deadly in Madison Square Garden and if Melo can pick his game back up to the level he’s been playing at all month, New York still has a chance in this series. LeBron James’ brilliant performance should be a little disconcerting for Knicks fans, but we haven’t seen what he’ll look like in the fourth quarter of a close game yet. And I’m still hoping that we’ll see one epic, back-and-forth scoring LeBron-Melo battle before the series is over. In any case, you can expect LeBron to keep playing well and Melo to pick his game up.

Despite flopping on Chandler's screen, LeBron James put on a show in the first half and put New York away early.

There are a few serious areas of concern that might not change as easily, however. Even though I don’t see it happening, If Miami’s supporting cast plays well again, the Knicks are in real trouble. The Heat will continue to play good defense, but Melo and the Knicks can still score and should compete better with a healthy Tyson Chandler and a fresh start in Game 2. What’s really critical is the severity of Iman Shumpert’s injury. Losing Shumpert could prove to be a big blow if he’s out for an extended period of time, as he’s one of the best defender’s in the league. With so many prolific scorers on the Heat, New York might lose the one defensive anchor that could help them contend in this series. After that awful performance, the Knicks need more out of pretty much everybody. But J.R. Smith and Steve Novak absolutely HAVE to bang in some 3-pointers for this team to have a chance. Amare MUST show up and take more than seven shots. And New York really needs to exploit Miami’s disadvantage in their lack of depth, which is the exact opposite of what they did today, letting guys like Shane Battier and Mike Miller to make an impact.

The odds are definitely not in New York’s favor for pulling off the historic upset. Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t do much and the Heat still absolutely smashed the Knicks. LeBron James stated his case for the MVP Award one more time and looked unstoppable as Miami sent New York a clear message: We’re better than you and you have no chance in this series. But I have to think that the competitor in Carmelo Anthony is absolutely ready to have a big game in Game 2, or at the very least, will show up to play for Games 3 and 4 at home. Either way, Melo has been playing too well recently to completely flush it all down the toilet. I still stand by my prediction that the Heat will win in 6 games, but don’t count New York out just yet; they were labeled as one of the most dangerous teams in the East coming into the playoffs for a reason.

It was a horrible day for Melo and the Knicks as everything went wrong. But don't count them out just yet.

Blaming Melo

The popular thing for awhile seemed to be blaming Carmelo Anthony for the New York Knicks’ struggles. Whether it was the six-game losing streak, Mike D’Antoni’s resignation or the rumors that he wanted to be traded, the common trend when talking about the New York Knicks became: “Blame Melo!”

But let’s take a closer look at the facts and use our brains a little bit. This trend spread like wildfire, but was it fair to put 100% of the blame for the Knicks’ extensive problems on Melo? Definitely not.

Stop regurgitating what you hear on Sportscenter. It's not Melo's fault

First, let’s take a look at the three ways Melo did screw up New York. 1) Melo’s isolation plays. Melo’s playing style turns downright selfish at times and hurts the team’s chemistry and ability to contribute. You’ve seen it before: Melo dribbling around, jacking up a shot after winding down the shot clock, usually missing, then jogging back on defense. 2) Melo’s defense. “Playing” defense is exactly what I would call it, because it doesn’t look like he’s really even trying. What happened to the guy that went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant in the playoffs on the Nuggets? 3) Melo’s injury. This is probably the one that hurt the most. The injury that sidelined Melo gave Jeremy Lin the chance to rise as New York’s go-to man and allowed the team to develop new chemistry. Behind Jeremy Lin, this Knicks team clicked, had fun, and everyone saw the ball thanks to their newfound distributor and scorer. Carmelo’s return screwed up the winning chemistry that the team established with Lin.

Now it’s important to understand why the Knicks’ six game losing streak shouldn’t have fallen entirely on Melo’s shoulders. First of all, calling Melo is a ballhog is only semi-accurate. The guy is a scorer and should be given the ball because otherwise what’s the point of having him? Certainly not for his defensive intensity! A dip in everybody else’s numbers should be expected when a scoring machine like Carmelo Anthony is inserted back into the lineup. Second, keep in mind that any time a star player sits on the sidelines for awhile, the team has to respond to his absence. This means that the group establishes a new rhythm and chemistry, so when the star returns, the team dynamic is different and both sides have to adjust. This happens with ANY star player, so saying that Melo ruined the team chemistry is a little unfair.

It’s also unfair to place all of the blame with Melo when the Knicks had a myriad of other problems going on that few people acknowledged during that six-game skid. One was Jeremy Lin’s poor shooting during that stretch. Although he put up 14.5 shots per game, he shot 39% from the floor. Yes, Melo was leading the team with 18 shots per game and his shooting percentage wasn’t fantastic either, but Amare Stoudemire was only getting 13.7 looks per game. Amare is the Knicks’ second-best offensive threat! Even if Amare’s numbers have drastically dipped from 25.3 ppg last season to 17.4 ppg this seaosn, Lin should not be putting up more shots than him, especially when Lin is shooting so poorly. Amare already plays terrible defense, so if he’s not getting touches you might as well leave him on the bench. Then you realize guys like Landry Fields and JR Smith weren’t getting enough touches. Tyson Chandler was out for a few games and battled that wrist injury. Finally, look at the teams the Knicks played during that stretch. You should notice the level of competition rose dramatically compared to when Linsanity was on the rampage; games against the Celtics, Mavs, Spurs, Bucks, Sixers and Bulls would all be challenging even without all the problems the Knicks have been dealing with.

You're looking at New York's biggest problem, but here's a hint: it's not Melo.

But the biggest problem with the Knicks was their coaching situation. You can talk all you want about how D’Antoni’s resignation came down to Melo’s isolation style vs. D’Antoni’s “team-basketball-centered-around-the-point-guard” strategy. You can blame Melo for basically ousting D’Antoni when management realized it was time to either get rid of the coach or get rid of the player. You can even blame all the ESPN reports for spurring the resignation with their stories about Melo not backing D’Antoni’s system and wanting a trade (which he adamantly denied). But that fact is, D’Antoni was not the right coach for New York and his system tanked there. He didn’t connect with his star player and the team suffered for it as conflicting styles of play manifested themselves. Think back to Melo’s time in Denver. Before Anthony wanted a trade and put the Nuggets in an uncomfortable place for most of the season, did George Karl have these kind of extensive problems with Melo or his team? Not even close. D’Antoni was the wrong guy for the job. And this is coming from a Suns fan who realizes how important he was in revitalizing basketball in Phoenix (before his lack of emphasis on defense led to the team coming up short).

I started writing this post before the Knicks went on a three-game winning spree, but the fact remains the same even if they hadn’t won those games: New York is much better off without D’Antoni. The Knicks have won three straight under Mike Woodson, all by double digits (including a 42-point Portland massacre). The scoring has been extremely balanced under a coach who knows how to manage his players, even if that means letting them take the reins a little bit. Melo has lowered his shots per game by about six during this winning streak, which does show the team is better when he’s not putting up 20 shots every night. But don’t forget all the other problems the Knicks had before Woodson took over. JR Smith has turned things around, averaging just under 17 ppg. Lin is shooting the ball less and stepping into his role as a true point guard. Novak has emerged as a dangerous threat from downtown and Chandler has returned to the lineup.

Despite the fact that Carmelo Anthony has shot the ball poorly this season, Linsanity is over; he has offensive weapons around him. What the Knicks need now is for Lin to be a true points guard by looking to facilitate first and score second. If he does this, if the scoring continues to be balanced, if Melo shoots the ball less, if Amare and JR Smith stay involved and if Novak, Chandler, Shumpert and the rest of the supporting cast continue to fulfill their roles, New York will make the playoffs. Whether or not Woodson’s coaching will help this team realize its full potential remains to be seen; his record as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t exactly stellar. But the most important point is that with someone else in charge, New York could develop into the team Knicks fans hoped for, but could only dream about, with D’Antoni in charge.

Without D'Antoni, the future of the New York Knicks looks much brighter

Chemistry in New York

Yes, the New York Knicks did just lose to the New Jersey Nets at home. But here’s why they shouldn’t be discouraged.

1) This was their first game with Melo back. Although he only shot 4 of 11 for 11 points, the best thing about his performance was his commitment to trying to fit in with the team’s style of play. He ended up with 6 assists and said his mindset was to go in and contribute without trying to do too much. He was pretty rusty and committed 6 turnovers, but he’ll clean his game up and get acclimated the more games he plays. Lin and Melo seemed to have pretty solid chemistry and it’s only a matter of time before they learn how to feed off each other.

A shaky start, but these two stars should figure it out

2) Deron Williams had to go off for 38 points to beat the Knicks. Williams was a man with a grudge after his poor defense gave rise to Linsanity, so he had a real reason to go out and make a statement. He was 8 of 14 from beyond the arc and singlehandedly got New Jersey the win. Williams is an All-Star point guard and you can’t take anything away from him, but he’s not going to drop 38 every night. The Knicks did lose to a lower-quality team, but thanks to Williams’ performance, it was hard to tell the difference.

Deron Williams had a grudge Monday. Without his 38, the Knicks win easy

3) Insufficient contribution from key role players. The most disconcerting thing about this loss was how average everyone else played. Melo had an excuse to be rusty after missing so many games, but the Knicks could have used a little more help. Amare finished with a respectable 17 points and Tyson Chandler had 14, but JR Smith only contributed 4 points and Landry Fields only had 10. New York needs more out of its shooting guards right now, even though Smith should take over the starting SG spot once he’s fully back in the groove. Lin is a scorer and Melo will get his offense going, but Smith, Fields, Novak, and Jeffries will all need to consistently contribute a little something for the Knicks to be the juggernaut they are capable of being. Iman Shumpert sitting out with a knee injury also hurt, as the Knicks missed out on a few points and once of their better perimeter defenders.

The Knicks need secondary offensive threats like JR to be ready to go every night

The adjustment period for the Knicks may take awhile (the Miami Heat can attest to that), but once they’ve learned how to play with each other, the biggest thing they’ll have to worry about is defense. Lin will be able to score and distribute to natural scorers in Carmelo and Amare, JR should take over as the shooting guard and consistently pitch in on offense and Chandler will be there for cleanup work in the post and be effective of the pick and roll. A loss to the Nets looks embarrassing on paper, but the Knicks should be just fine.

JR Smith to the Knicks

Reports from Daily News and the New York Times say JR Smith and the Knicks are closing in on a deal. If this proves to be true, the Knicks could be serious contenders in the East. Although there would certainly be an adjustment period for Lin, Stoudemire, Melo and Smith to get used to playing with each other, once these stars get accustomed to each other’s game and learn how to play together, they could be a formidable force.

Keep an eye on this story. And Knicks fans, cautious optimism is the way to go for now.