Amar'e Stoudemire spun around rookie Cody Zeller on the baseline, rose up, and with his back to his basket, dropped the ball in the net.
A younger Stoudemire, on more stable knees, would have dunked it with authority. But the fact that he played Friday night was something that seemed like a long shot when training camp started Oct. 1.
But Stoudemire's surgically repaired left knee got stronger. He got his swagger and bravado back, and it looks as if he got some of his game back, too.
Stoudemire shot 3-for-4 for six points in 13 minutes in the Knicks' 85-83 loss to the Bobcats at the Garden in their final tune-up before the regular-season opener against the Bucks on Wednesday night. "I'm a little bit ahead of schedule," he said. "I'm the hardest worker in this league, man. I work extremely hard every day, a countless amount of hours. I think no one works as hard as I do in this league, so with that being said, I think my body's reacted to that in a positive way and hopefully it keeps improving."
Now, unless there's a setback, Stoudemire, who had three knee operations in 10 months, will play in the opener. "I feel great," he said. "I feel strong. I feel no soreness right now so I'm sure we'll be ready to go Wednesday."
All 15 players were available Friday night, a good sign.In his preseason debut, J.R. Smith, who had left knee surgery in July, was 5-for-9 and scored 11 points, including a 34-foot shot to beat the third-quarter buzzer. Kenyon Martin also played for the first time and had two points in eight minutes. He's been nursing a left ankle injury.
Stoudemire got the ball three times in the post in the first quarter. He lost the ball the first time but scored on the next two. On the second, he took some contact and banked in a 5-footer.
He still needs to get his timing back. He had no rebounds, picked up four fouls and had three turnovers. But the Knicks -- who blew a 19-point lead in the game -- were happy to see him out there when weeks ago, that didn't seem likely.
"I was very impressed by what Amar'e was able to do out there on the court," Carmelo Anthony said.
"He's a lot stronger and a lot bigger than he was a year ago, so I think the weights have really helped his body,'' coach Mike Woodson said. "But to me, Amar'e is amazing because he never quits working."
The Knicks won't use Stoudemire every game, even if he remains healthy. The same goes for Martin. The Knicks want them healthy late in the season and playoffs.
Smith eventually will play his usual 30-plus minutes a game. But the earliest he'll play is Nov. 10 against the Spurs. Smith has to serve a five-game suspension for violating the terms of the league anti-drug policy.
Notes & quotes: Carmelo Anthony (13 points) was 4-for-17 and missed a potential tying jumper in the closing seconds. Iman Shumpert had 16 but misfired on a three-pointer in the final minute. Andrea Bargnani shot 2-for-10.