HOUSTON - Earlier in the day, well before the Nets essentially surrendered the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes to the Knicks, Mike D'Antoni said he had "a good vibe" about his team and its potential. By the end of Wednesday night, D'Antoni's team looked as if it was desperate for an injection that could come from such a blockbuster acquisition, as the Knicks lost to the Rockets, 104-89, at the Toyota Center.
Amar'e Stoudemire scored 25 points against some tough defense by Chuck Hayes, but the Knicks and their league-leading offense could not find anyone to provide support. And their step-slow, gambling defense that allowed 54 points in the paint wasn't good enough to make up the difference.
The result, a fourth straight loss for the Knicks (22-19) with a daunting back-to-back in San Antonio and Oklahoma City this weekend that could stretch it to six, had Stoudemire in an ornery mood throughout the game and afterward.
"We've got to stop talking about it and just do it," Stoudemire said of the team's poor effort on defense. "You know, we say we're going to do it but we don't do it. So we've got to stop talking and just execute."
Stoudemire also said his team was "playing comfortable. We're playing like a team that's already made it and we haven't made anything yet."
Added co-captain Raymond Felton: "We have to figure out a way to light a fire under our guys.''
Felton, who is playing through an ankle sprain, is having his own issues as he continues to struggle. He had 14 points, shooting 5-for-14, and five assists in 36:49. Toney Douglas had 13 points off the bench.
Kevin Martin led the Rockets (20-23) with 21 points. Houston took both games against the Knicks and will root for the Knicks to go into a tailspin for the rest of the season. They hold the right to swap first-round picks with the Knicks in the 2011 draft as a result of last year's Tracy McGrady trade.
Though the Nets' move to drop out of trade talks for Anthony - and his well-documented desire to play in New York - appears to give the Knicks great leverage in a trade, their struggles at this point in the season could make them a little more desperate to make a deal. If anything, the rumors that will persist between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline could serve as a distraction for the players.
"I've been in that situation before and it can distract you," Stoudemire said. "But the right thing to do and the best thing to do is to just play through it and make sure you bring your 'A' game and play hard every night."
Last season, Stoudemire was the subject of trade rumors before the deadline, including a deal that almost went down that would have sent him to the Cavaliers. Stoudemire admitted "it was" a distraction for him, "But I was able to put that aside after a few games. So it can be a distraction, but I think the best thing we can do is try to stay together and understand that the ultimate goal is to win. We've got to keep going."
The Knicks' problem lately has been starting, as once again they found themselves trailing early with not nearly enough energy - or firepower - to make up the deficit. Houston used an 18-6 run in a five-minute span in the first quarter to take a 21-12 lead and the Knicks never seriously threatened. Early in the fourth, Douglas hit a three-pointer with 10:40 left to cut the deficit to 84-79, but Chase Budinger (13 points) answered with a relatively easy spin move for a short jumper in the paint against almost no defensive resistance.
"We're not communicating or playing aggressively," Stoudemire said, "and getting after it the way we can."
And at the other end, they're not burying teams under an avalanche of offense, either, as the Knicks and their league-leading offense failed to reach 90 points for the fourth time in the last seven games.
Danilo Gallinari (11 points) and Wilson Chandler totaled 21 points and shot a combined 8-for-24 from the field and 2- for-10 from three-point range. With no one drawing defenses away from the paint, it made it easy for the Rockets to mainly focus on Stoudemire.
"We need that extra guy to make shots," D'Antoni said. "It's got to be [Chandler], Raymond or Gallo, whatever. The last two or three games, we haven't had that."
Anthony certainly could provide that, but the Knicks still have a long way to go before putting him in orange and blue becomes a reality. For now, the Knicks find themselves three games over .500 at the midway point of the season. Is D'Antoni satisfied?
"If you asked me in July I would have said yeah, but if you asked me two weeks ago I would say no," he said. "We blew the two games at home , there's no doubt about it. That puts you in a hole and you've got to dig out of it."