ORLANDO, Fla. - The battle of the big men became a battle of which All-Star center would foul out first. Or at least be able to play more minutes.
The Magic's Dwight Howard won that contest and, as a result, won the game, as foul-plagued Amar'e Stoudemire and the Knicks took a 112-103 loss last night. The Knicks went 0-for-2 on this tough Florida trip, which included a loss in Miami on Tuesday. They fought back from a large early deficit each time. But in each case, it wasn't enough.
"We need to get better, but I think we can beat these guys,'' Mike D'Antoni said. "I think our locker room thinks, 'Yeah, we can beat these guys.' We didn't do it and we'll have to play better, but we have a lot of stuff we can rely on. I feel pretty good about things.''
The Knicks still rely heavily on Stoudemire, so the fact that he played only 31:39 was a major issue, as was the fact that he picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. He still scored 30 points, with 16 in the fourth, but the Knicks struggled without him in the first half, shooting 36.4 percent from the field in falling behind by as many as 20 points.
Against the Heat, the Knicks fell behind by 22 points in the first half before closing to within three down the stretch. Against the Magic, they came within 98-96 on Stoudemire's three-point play with 4:12 left. But Hedo Turkoglu answered with a three-pointer over Stoudemire, playing with five fouls, and the Knicks' offense sputtered from there.
"They keep playing hard and they keep coming back and giving themselves a chance to win,'' D'Antoni said. "And then towards the end, it's just not enough.''
Wilson Chandler, who carried the team while Stoudemire was stuck on the bench, had 29 points and nine rebounds for the Knicks (18-14), who have lost five of their last seven. Raymond Felton had 14 points but shot 6-for-22, including 1-for-7 from three-point range. He had six assists and six turnovers.
Howard, who picked up his fifth foul with 2:05 left, had 24 points and 18 rebounds. Jason Richardson had 19 points for the recently rebuilt Magic (21-12), which won its fourth straight.
Each big man was hit with a technical foul on separate occasions. Howard, who was called for one just 1:56 into the game, leads the NBA with 12. Stoudemire, who was slapped for his in the second quarter, is right behind him with 10. At 16 comes an automatic suspension.
Stoudemire's tech was a mistake on the part of referee Derek Richardson, who thought he was directing anger at him when he actually was growling at Gilbert Arenas after a blocked shot. "I told him to get that mess out of here,'' Stoudemire said. "And I got a tech.''
The technical will cost him $3,000. He said he plans to protest it, but the officials were extremely tolerant later in the game when he had angry reactions to foul calls against him.
The Knicks were down 87-77 when Stoudemire picked up his fifth foul with 8:50 left. D'Antoni considered leaving him in the game - "I didn't think we could win without him,'' he said - but then changed his mind and went with a very small lineup, with the 6-9 Shawne Williams (15 points) teaming with the 6-8 Chandler as the last line of defense in the frontcourt. But they provided the scoring that sparked the comeback attempt.
There are issues to address, especially the need for a big body who can relieve Stoudemire of these tough assignments at center, but D'Antoni is optimistic about his team's future.
"It's December,'' he said. "Let's see what happens February and March.''