For most of this season, Amar'e Stoudemire carried the Knicks into the top six in the East as a dynamic force of power and determination. The workload has taken its toll on him, as expected, and his legs don't seem to have the bounce they had in December. As a result, the Knicks have gone from a team seven games over .500 (22-15) on Jan. 11 to just one game up after nine losses in the last 12 games.

"We got to definitely look ourselves in the mirror collectively and play much better," Stoudemire said. "We're slacking right now."

Stoudemire isn't exactly playing with pop lately, either. Yes, the wear-and-tear is starting to mount along with the bags of ice that pack his body after games. He hasn't participated in practices recently just to get rest. And while it's important to preserve their most important player so he has enough fuel in the tank come April when the playoffs begin, you also have to make sure you can even get there.

Everyone else has to deal with the rigors of the long NBA season and the dog days that come at this time of year. Stoudemire has been great, but Garden fans should stifle the "MVP" chants for now until STAT gets back on his "immortal swagger." Lately, he's been mortal and, at least until Carmelo arrives, the Knicks can't afford for him to be human.

Let's call it as we saw it: Elton Brand absolutely outplayed Stoudemire as the dominant big man in the game, with 33 points and 16 rebounds. Stoudemire said Brand "got comfortable early" which should be an indictment on himself, since he was the biggest player on the court early in the game when Brand torched the Knicks for 19 first quarter points. Timofey Mozgov did the best job on Brand and that can not go unnoticed on Sunday in the rematch of this home-and-home.

This is an early test, a real one. This isn't a measuring stick like games against the Celtics, Heat and Spurs. Losses actually mean something here, so this is a true test for Mike D'Antoni's team.

And on Friday in Philadelphia, they found themselves in an unfamiliar position, as the hunted. It's something they better get used to because of all the teams in the East, the Knicks appear to be the most vulnerable to a second-half swoon. And teams like the 76ers, Bobcats, Pacers and Bucks will be gunning for them as they battle for the last three spots in the East playoff standings.

You could argue that the team's terrific run from mid-November to mid-January afforded them this time right now. They build up a seven-game cushion. But that's almost completely gone now and they can't let it continue much longer.

"It's something we can't afford," Stoudemire said of the 3-9 slide. "We're a young team, we haven't done nothing yet. I hope everybody's not comfortable with the fact that we have a winning record. But that's slowly evaporating."

Their hold on the sixth seed will evaporate to just one game if they lose Sunday against the 76ers for a home-and-home sweep and, more importantly, an 0-3 record against Philly this season that could be a factor if a tie-breaker situation is needed.

"That's a must win," Raymond Felton said of the noon matinee at the Garden.

"You can't put a lot of weight [on it], but at the same time, it's a must-win," Felton reiterated. "You've got to know the importance of that . . . that's a team that's right behind us."

Felton had a strong third quarter with 15 of his 26 points and helped lead the comeback after the nine point lead he helped provide going into the fourth was surrendered when Toney Douglas ran the offense, which failed to score in over six minute span in the fourth. That's an extremely scary reality D'Antoni has to face when he takes Felton out for his needed rest in the second half: Douglas is a tenacious defender, but he just has no command of the offense. This is why while Donnie Walsh pursues Carmelo Anthony before the trade deadline -- this team certainly could use his offense, especially late in games -- he also needs to find a capable backup point guard.

Felton has been one to take the last shot most of the time this season, so it was notable that on that final play in Philadelphia, instead of being Lou Williams off the dribble or setting up a pick-and-roll situation with Amar'e, Felton instead passed it off to Danilo Gallinari.

Gallinari then made the wise decision -- yes, he was guarded and to chuck a three there would have been ill-advised -- to swing the ball to the corner to Shawne Williams, the NBA's best three-point shooter who is so often money from that left corner and had just nailed one from there a few seconds earlier to bring the Knicks to within two. But Williams passed up what would have been a game-winner to drive the ball and never looked sure of that decision from the moment he put the ball on the floor.

To his credit, Williams man-ed up after the game and admitted it was a mental mistake on his part and vowed it won't happen again. You have to respect that, but you also have to demand better from your team -- young or not -- at this point in the season.

"Those little excuses we used to make earlier in the season, it's time out for that," Felton said. "We can't make them no more. We've got to hold each other accountable individually and as a team."

They've got to realize that from this point forward, every game means something. It's been years since the Knicks have played for anything. Generally by the all-star break, the team has too much ground to make up.

Now they have too much to lose.

* * *

* - The team is expected to officially announce on Saturday the hiring of former Nuggets GM Mark Warkentien as a consultant. Warkentien, who was the 2009 NBA Executive of the Year, has had a longtime relationship Walsh, who had him on his short list of potential candidates to fill a general manager position.


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