CLEVELAND -- Amar'e Stoudemire made his long-awaited return, but he did little to squelch concerns that he will hurt what Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks have built lately.
But it wasn't solely Stoudemire's presence after a 13- game absence because of a bulging disc in his back that affected the Knicks Friday night. One night after clinching a postseason berth by not even playing, the Knicks seemed to exhale.
They didn't play anywhere near the level they had reached to get into the postseason, falling behind by 19 before losing to the lottery-bound Cavaliers, 98-90.
"I've seen this happen over the years," coach Mike Woodson said. "You clinch a spot and it's like a sigh of relief and they stop playing and then they think they can gear it back up.
"There is nothing about [this] game that I liked. It was good having Amar'e back. I thought he played decent in spurts. As a unit, we didn't compete. That's unacceptable."
The Knicks, who clinched a playoff spot when the Bucks lost Thursday, are seventh in the East, a half-game ahead of the 76ers. They had hoped to get to sixth, but to do that now, they must win their final three games while the Magic, without Dwight Howard, goes 0-4.
Before the game, Stoudemire declared himself "pain-free." He wasn't rust-free, though, which was anticipated. It also was expected that the Knicks would need time to adjust to playing with him again, especially with him being such an integral part of the offense.
But it was clear that Stoudemire wasn't in rhythm, and the Knicks never got it going. He missed his first three free throws, picked up two quick fouls and didn't move well defensively. He had a strong fourth quarter to finish with 15 points and shot 5-for-11 in 27 minutes.
"As the game went on, I felt more and more comfortable," he said. "I felt my rhythm coming back a lot faster. I felt great."
Anthony, who came in averaging 32.2 points in nine April games, scored 12 points, shot 5-for-13 and never left the bench in the fourth quarter.
The Knicks cut the 19-point fourth-quarter hole to eight, with Stoudemire contributing to the surge. They had a chance to get to six with about two minutes to go but turned the ball over. Woodson thought about bringing back Anthony and Tyson Chandler in the fourth but decided to let them rest.
Now the Knicks have only three games to jell with Stoudemire before the playoffs start.
"We're not really concerned about the flow or anything, or guys have to make adjustments or anything like that," Anthony said. "I'm glad, we're glad, that he's back. No one had to adjust their games, nothing like that. We want him to be aggressive out there. We want him to be the Amar'e we know. So we'll see what happens."
Stoudemire hadn't played since March 24 against Detroit. He received an epidural shot five days later and said his back responded to it quickly. But he was worried that he might not be able to play again this season.
"I was very concerned," he said. "It was a little nerve-wracking because I didn't know what to expect. I thought about a lot of different things during this procedure. But it's great to be on the basketball court now getting ready for the playoffs."
Notes & quotes: Because Jared Jeffries could sit out the rest of the regular season with right knee soreness, the Knicks signed center Dan Gadzuric for insurance. Gadzuric averaged 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in nine seasons for the Bucks, Warriors and Nets. Bill Walker was waived to make room for him . . . Baron Davis was a late scratch because of a stomach bug and Mike Bibby (12 points, 4-for-5 shooting from three-point range) started for the second straight game. With Stoudemire back, Woodson kept rookie guard Iman Shumpert in the starting lineup and brought Landry Fields off the bench . . . Individual playoff tickets go on sale at noon Saturday at nyknicks.com, ticketmaster.com and the Garden box office.