Amar'e Stoudemire doesn't expect his lower back to keep him out Monday night when the Knicks play probably their biggest game of the season.

Stoudemire left Saturday's win over the Pistons after his back stiffened up. Coach Mike Woodson said Stoudemire's condition was "a big concern." But Stoudemire did everything to downplay it, saying, "There's nothing to be worried about."

The Knicks didn't practice Sunday. They will have an official update on Stoudemire Monday, but they hope their biggest concern is beating the Bucks.

If Stoudemire's back hampers him and causes him to miss games or be ineffective, the Knicks' chances of making the playoffs could take a major hit.

They have a 1 1/2-game lead on Milwaukee for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, making Monday night's game against the Bucks at the Garden a must-win.

"We need that game," Carmelo Anthony said. "We are going to be doing everything in our power to get that game."

"It's a huge game, huge game," Tyson Chandler said. "Both teams know what's at stake."

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The Knicks (24-25) expect to have Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, who also left Saturday's blowout win with soreness in his left knee, available Monday night.

The Bucks already have beaten the Knicks twice. Another Milwaukee win would cut the Knicks' lead to a half-game and give the Bucks the tiebreaker. If the Knicks win, they'll open a 2 1/2-game lead with 16 left, including one in Milwaukee next month that could turn out to be even bigger than Monday night's game.

"It's very, very important for us," Stoudemire said. "We're trying to make a run. We're trying to do something special for our standings and for our division chances."

The Knicks are 2 1/2 games behind seventh-place Boston, three behind Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia, five behind Indiana and 5 1/2 behind Atlanta.

So they could move up in the standings, but they're probably going to have to play even better than they have in going 6-1 since Woodson replaced Mike D'Antoni. Three of the Knicks' last four games were against sub-.500 teams. Ten of the remaining 17 games are against teams with above .500 records.

That's why Stoudemire's health and effectiveness are so critical. He has been playing much better lately, showing the explosiveness he displayed most of last season, and it's come at the right time.

Anthony has been struggling offensively. He has scored 17 or fewer points in seven straight games and made only 37 of 94 shots in that time. Anthony said he's trying to find his rhythm. It would help the Knicks if he started to find it ASAP.

The Knicks can't afford a lackluster outing against any team, let alone one with a worse record, especially when they're thinking bigger than just climbing in the standings.

Pictures of the NBA championship trophy were put above their lockers Saturday night to motivate them and remind them what their goal is. But the Knicks have to make the playoffs first.

"It's about what we do," Woodson said. "We control our own destiny. It's how we play on both ends of the floor."