Finally, it's time for Knicks to play for real

Amar'e Stoudemire will miss the next two games Amar'e Stoudemire will miss the next two games as he mourns the death of his brother, and Carmelo Anthony will be out at least that long with a groin strain. (undated file photo) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The last time they set a sneakered foot on the Madison Square Garden floor, the Knicks were swept out of the first round of last season's playoffs by the Boston Celtics.

A lot has changed since then. The NBA went through a painful lockout. The Garden has gone through the first phase of a three-part makeover. And the Knicks have Tyson Chandler in the middle, Baron Davis in the wings and visions of a deep playoff run dancing in their heads.

After a long offseason and shortened preseason, it finally will be just about basketball when the Knicks and Celtics open the NBA season at noon Sunday.

Chandler will join Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony to give the Knicks a Big Three they hope will one day rival the Celtics' Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. That group came together to win a championship in 2008, a template the Knicks could point to if everything breaks right in what is sure to be an unusual and jam-packed 66-game season.

Or maybe that's getting ahead of ourselves . . .

"We've got to get out of the first round first to make that comparison," Anthony said after practice Friday at the MSG Training Center. "I think we're on our way. We have a chance to do some big things. But I think Boston, guys did a great job of coming together at the right time in their careers. A lot of things weren't going their way. They came together as one and they won a championship."

Whether Anthony and Stoudemire can truly play winning basketball together . . . and whether Chandler can bring that championship defensive mentality from Dallas to New York . . . and whether Davis can rehab his aching back and be a force at point guard . . . well, none of those questions will be definitively answered Sunday. Or for a while.

"You're just trying to prepare the team the best you can," said coach Mike D'Antoni, who in the final year of his contract had to preside over a whirlwind training camp during which it seemed a new player showed up every day. Friday's was forward Steve Novak, who practiced for the first time since getting claimed on waivers Wednesday.

"We're not trying to get locked into [preparing for] one game," D'Antoni said. "We just have to try to get better. Our practices are 2½ hours, three hours, and those are a little long, but you've got so much stuff you've got to go over to kind of cover it all and be ready for a month from now and really have a team that's really ready."

The Celtics won't be really ready Sunday, either. Pierce is doubtful because of a bruised right heel, according to coach Doc Rivers. But Pierce loves to face the Knicks and could try to give it a go for the opener.

"They're still the Celtics," Anthony said. "A very experienced team. I think every year they face the talk of them aging, people getting hurt, injuries, but they always seem to bounce back. I think Doc Rivers really does a great job with that squad over there. They're veterans, they know how to play, they know what to do. But for us, we really want to focus on ourselves on what we've been getting better at in practice and in the preseason and go from there."

Where will they go from there? We'll find out starting Sunday.

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From left, New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire, 2011-12 NBA preview