Amar'e Stoudemire had emphasis in his words as he complimented his fellow star on a magnificent night of all-around basketball in the desperate overtime win over the Magic on Monday night.
"I thought Melo played a phenomenal basketball game out there tonight," Stoudemire said, "and that's what we needed."
It was an unsolicited thought added to a question about himself and the smile he had -- a rare sight lately -- at the final buzzer when he hugged Carmelo. Stoudemire certainly wanted to embrace THAT Carmelo. That's the one he's wanted to see since the trade and maybe it was the first time he'd seen him since the big win in Miami.
It's THAT Carmelo to whom Amar'e doesn't mind playing second fiddle. His legs aren't there yet -- it's obvious to anyone who looks without agenda-driven cynicism and recalls that even before the trade, Stoudemire's pop-pop was starting to fizz-fizz -- but even if they were, Stoudemire would have to admit that he can't put up that kind of a performance without the assistance of a point guard and a system.
But Carmelo was the system -- with a lot more pick-and-roll and motion mixed in than we've seen recently -- and perhaps this is where the Knicks start to finally develop a focus on offense. The ball went through him and for most of the game he made the right decisions with it (and not just because he fouled out BOTH opposing small forwards with a Bernard King-like mix of uncanny touch and physical dominance). Carmelo finished with just two assists, but he moved the ball a lot more than the boxscore shows.
And consider that in one of the most important possessions to that point in the game, Carmelo passed up his own shot to hit Toney Douglas scooting along the baseline for a short jumper (goaltended by Dwight Howard) with 10.2 seconds left to give the Knicks a 100-97 lead. A miss on that possession could have been a killer, but with Anthony on fire in the second half, you might have expected him to have tunnel vision at that point. Instead, his awareness was crystal clear and the play was excellent.
And how about earlier in the fourth, when Douglas dribbled off a screen and toward the corner, with Anthony asking for the ball foul-line extended? Toney looked off Melo, too the baseline shot and made it for a 94-90 lead with 3:03 left. Ten days ago, Carmelo would have smirked, shook his head and then grumbled something to Douglas about getting him the ball. But this time Carmelo roared and met Toney with an encouraging pat on the head.
This is the Carmelo that would be among the best players in the NBA if only we saw him every night. The one who chased down rebounds with aggressive abandon -- he had 10 for the game -- and the one who kept his hands very active on defense. It didn't all go his way -- the put-back of his own miss fell short before the buzzer to end regulation -- but the fact that it was a wire-to-wire effort might have been the most impressive part of the performance. He played, as I wrote, like a player at the park who wasn't ready to give up "next".
"I've seen him score 40, 50 and all that before, clutch baskets all the time before," Chauncey Bilups said. "But I just think that he was so locked in . . . You know that he wanted to win this game. He was not going to let us lose this game. And when you get him focused like that on both ends, you're talking about maybe the best player in basketball."
The Knicks still have their holes and deficiencies and, make no mistake, the Magic weren't the same without Jameer Nelson (sprained knee) making life difficult for the Knicks defense. But when a star is playing with the kind of energy and effort as Carmelo did in this game, it is impossible for his teammates to not get equally energized. Throw in the unsung heroics of Shelden Williams, who played as if he wanted to prove his value against opposing big men, and you had the kind of galvanizing night that this team desperately needed.
And on the morning after, with the win in the rear view mirror and hope of a playoff-clinching winning-streak on the horizon with lottery bound teams such as the Nets and Cavaliers ahead, the demand is that THIS Carmelo continues to show up every night. The demand is that this isn't a one-night-only performance. Of course they've said that in Denver many times, too.
But beyond motivation, the question I have is does Carmelo have the kind of conditioning to consistently play at that level?
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* - Shelden Williams had a very aggressive game against Dwight Howard -- six fouls in 15:51 is aggressive and the Garden fans, who welcomed him to the bench with a standing ovation, loved the sight of a center that actually battles -- and seems to have earned himself a regular spot in Mike D'Antoni's rotation. But it doesn't sound like D'Antoni wants to use Shelden as the starting center. D'Antoni said the plan will be to stay with 6-9 Shawne Williams starting along with Amar'e Stoudemire against the Nets' big front line of Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries and then bring Shelden in as the first big off the bench. The idea is that if Shelden picks up two early fouls, it renders him less effective to play the physical style he needs to play.
D'Antoni at least seems to be getting the idea that his reserves need to be gritty, effort players, which is why Shelden and Anthony Carter are back in favor. Bill Walker is also back in the mix and it'll be up to Walker to play hard on defense and not settle for taking just three-pointers to keep himself in the game. Still not sure why Derrick Brown hasn't even gotten a peek, but once Ronny Turiaf gets healthy again, he and Shelden represent 12 good, hard fouls the Knicks need to use to make up for their size issues.
* - D'Antoni once again did not order the Code Red -- intentionally fouling up three -- on Orlando's final possession of regulation. He has said many times before that he doesn't believe in the philosophy of putting a team on the foul line with the potential to make one and miss the second with the chance for an offensive rebound and in this case, especially with Howard's size advantage, that would have been tough. Jared Jeffries got caught off-balance on Jason Richardson's move and thought it was better to hold himself back rather than risk fouling Richardson by putting a hand up on the shot, which, of course, he hit with 5.7 seconds left to tie.
* - On the toe of each of Andy Rautins' sneakers are the initials "F.I." which is a reference to something Steve Kerr often wrote on his sneakers. We can't tell you exactly what "F.I." stands for, though the G-rated version is "Forget It". As Kerr told the story in Chris Ballard's terrific book "The Art of a Beautiful Game," he put "F.I." on that part because when he'd look down to check for the three-point line, it would remind him not to put so much pressure on himself: just take the shot.
Rautins said he read the book, but got the idea when he spoke with Kerr during the predraft process when he worked out for the Phoenix Suns. Kerr, he said, told him the Suns would draft him if he was on the board when they selected in the second round. The Knicks took Rautins at No. 38; the Suns picked at No. 46. It's been a tough season for Rautins, who has rarely even worn the uniform as an active player, let alone saw live action. The Knicks should have sent him to the D-League so he could play and develop his game.
* - No practice on Tuesday for the Knicks, who will get another day to rest and recharge the batteries. D'Antoni will try the morning shoot-around formula again for Wednesday's game against the Nets and see if it produces another win. After this game, there is a huge and long-awaited break in the schedule, with one game (Sunday against the Cavs) in the next five days. Then the season ends with six games in nine.