INDIANAPOLIS - As the end of his wait to return to action for the first time in more than two months approached Saturday, Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire was like a kid on Christmas morning. And Carmelo Anthony was as amused as any parent enduring a child's irrepressible burst of energy.
"He was up early this morning in shootaround," Anthony said. "He was dunking in shootaround. I'm like, 'Stat, it's May. Nobody is dunking in shootaround.' You can just see the excitement, man, and his love for wanting to be back out there on a basketball court."
There was doubt in some skeptical precincts whether Stoudemire's return to health would be healthy for a Knicks team that split the first two games of its Eastern Conference semifinals with the Pacers. But Stoudemire was determined to make an impact in Game 3, no matter how small.
Coach Mike Woodson made it clear beforehand that Stoudemire would play no more than 10-12 minutes, and that shrank to two stints totaling 8:56. But on a night when the Knicks were desperate for points in an 82-71 Game 3 loss, Stoudemire made the most of his cameo with seven points and two rebounds.
When it was over, he pronounced all systems go. "It feels great as far as my body's concerned," Stoudemire said. "I feel healthy; I feel strong; I felt explosive. I was in better shape than I thought I was.
"Being back on the basketball court is always a great feeling. But we lost, and that's not a great feeling."
Stoudemire's return began with a 4:29 stretch at the beginning of the second quarter. He missed his first shot, a spinning fadeaway on the low block. But Stoudemire dunked off a feed from Pablo Prigioni and was active on defense.
When Anthony returned to the game at the 7:29 mark with the Knicks trailing 24-19, Stoudemire headed back to the bench for the rest of the half. He returned with 3:17 left in the third quarter and was credited with a tip-in of a J.R. Smith miss as the shot clock expired and then hit his first three-pointer of the season before the third quarter buzzer to cut the Knicks' deficit to 62-53.
That's where the score stood when Anthony came in with 10:49 left in the fourth quarter. Still, there was one moment when the Knicks ran a pick-and-roll that showed Stoudemire's effect. The ball never got to him, but the defense stayed with him, leaving J.R. Smith open for a short jumper.
"I've been pretty dominant in that pick-and-roll game most of my career, so they had to respect the roll," Stoudemire said. "It opens up the rest of the court. It's hard to guard."
The Knicks are a team that needs answers on offense, and that's Stoudemire's specialty. But he wasn't about to second-guess Woodson's short leash.
"There's no pressure as far as forcing the issue with minutes played," Stoudemire said. "It feels great to be on the basketball court with my team back in battle . . . The coaches will figure out the best way for us to win."