Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks celebrates after...

Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks celebrates after drawing a second half foul against the Milwaukee Bucks. (March 26, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

If ever the Knicks needed Carmelo Anthony to have a big game, Monday night was it.

With Amar'e Stoudemire in Miami with a bulging disc in his back and Jeremy Lin on the bench with a sore knee, Anthony scored 28 points to lead the Knicks to a critical 89-80 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden.

The win gave the Knicks (25-25) a 2½-game lead over Milwaukee for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It was a win they sorely needed, considering that it looks as if they will be fighting to stay in the playoff picture without the aid of Stoudemire. The team announced before the game that he will be out "indefinitely" after an MRI revealed the back injury. He traveled to Miami Monday to get a second opinion.

Anthony's 28 points were the most he has scored since he had 35 against the Bucks on Jan. 20. He had 12 rebounds and was 12- for-12 from the free-throw line.

"What he did was big time for our ballclub," Mike Woodson said. "He reached down tonight and did what he had to do to get the job done. And that's big."

Anthony aggravated a groin injury late in the game but said he should be fine for Wednesday night's game against the Magic. Lin, who left Saturday's game against Detroit with a sore knee, could be back to face Orlando.

"It was a big game. It was a must win for us," said Baron Davis, who started in place of Lin and had 13 points, seven assists and nine turnovers. Tyson Chandler had 13 points and nine rebounds and Iman Shumpert added 11 points. J.R. Smith had nine points and 10 rebounds.

The Bucks were led by reserve Mike Dunleavy, who scored 24 of his 26 points in the first half, shooting 9-for-10 from the field and 5-for-6 from three-point range. He had two points after halftime, shooting 1-for-4.

The Knicks won this one with defense, limiting Milwaukee to 36.5 percent shooting and containing high-scoring guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Jennings shot 6-for-22 and scored 15 points; Ellis was 2-for-14 and had four points.

Anthony had scored 17 or fewer points in seven straight games, making only 37 of 94 shots. "I know regardless of the situation, I have to step up more than I have," he said before the game. "Everybody knows this is a big game for us."

The Knicks are 21/2 games behind the Celtics and 76ers, who share the Atlantic lead at 27-22. Said Woodson, 7-1 since replacing Mike D'Antoni: "Tonight we answered the bell. Big time."