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Talented bench gives Knicks a spark and frustrates opponents

Amar'e Stoudemire drives to the basket during a

Amar'e Stoudemire drives to the basket during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Feb. 1, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Shortly after the game starts, Mike Woodson walks down the sideline and tells his bench players to be ready. The Knicks' coach doesn't have to say it twice, and maybe not at all, not with his group of driven and dangerous reserves.

There's the perennial All-Star starring in his new role, the sparkplug who never found a shot he didn't think he could make and the catch-and-shoot marksman.

Amar'e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak are the main producers on what might be the NBA's best bench, one that's giving opposing teams fits because of its firepower.

"When you're talking about winning at a high level, you got to have a good bench," Woodson said. "Our bench is just as important as the guys who start the game, and they got to understand that and know. We've been pretty good all year. It's a luxury."

Pablo Prigioni, a 35-year-old rookie point guard, is a key backup, too. A reluctant shooter, Prigioni would rather set up his teammates -- and he does.

But it's Stoudemire's inside play and powerful dunks, Smith's tough, off-balance contested shots and Novak's quick-release three-pointers on the break or in the half-court that often ignite the Knicks and deflate their opposition.

"It creates problems," a longtime NBA coach said. "Most times you're game-planning for their starters. Now you got to game-plan for three of their bench guys. I say that with J.R. and Amar'e, and with Novak, you have to know where he is on the court. You're talking about guys who can change the game. You got two starters coming off the bench."

The second unit set a franchise record by scoring 82 points against Sacramento on Saturday. Smith had 25, Stoudemire 21 (shooting 10-for-10) and Novak 15 on five three-pointers.

"To bring in guys in waves and to bring in weapons, it's demoralizing for other teams," Novak said.


High-scoring bench

The Knicks' bench averages 39.3 points per game. Only the reserves for the Bobcats, Mavericks and Clippers score more. And since Stoudemire returned Jan. 1, the bench has gotten stronger. The reserves have averaged 44.1 points in 17 games, second only to Charlotte (44.9), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"It's a weapon," Woodson said. "If they're doing their thing, they'll stay on the floor until they go dry, and I'll figure it from there."

Having these multiple options should make the Knicks more formidable in the playoffs. The Atlantic Division-leading Knicks (31-16) are three games ahead of the second-place Nets and only 11/2 games behind the Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.Amar'e a huge plus

The Knicks already create matchup nightmares with Carmelo Anthony at power forward. Having Stoudemire coming off the bench and playing with lively legs since his return from knee surgery gives them another major advantage.

Stoudemire's resume speaks for itself: six-time All-Star and seven years averaging at least 20 points. Now he often faces the opposition's second-line big men, and when he enters the game, the highest-paid backup has one thought.

"Dominate," he said. "Dominate is the main objective."

Stoudemire is beating defenders with his improved post game, in transition and on pick-and-rolls. His presence also opens up the perimeter for Smith and Novak, and they're making teams pay.

"It gives us a great element," Stoudemire said. "We're a deep team, so when they're starting to lack with their second unit, we're actually getting stronger with our second unit. There's no drop-off."

The Knicks' bench has outscored opposing subs in all but two games since Stoudemire's return. They have a 136-point edge in bench scoring the past nine games, with Stoudemire averaging 17.7 points and shooting 65.9 percent.

"Amar'e seems to be getting his explosiveness back," a veteran assistant coach said. "J.R. Smith is not a bench player on most teams. Amar'e, either. Both guys are capable of getting 20-plus on any night. Not many benches can say that."

Smith puts up the points

Smith is perpetually moving, bouncing around like Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood and seemingly involved in every play.

He still takes questionable shots and does things that make Woodson look at him dumbfounded at times. But he's second only to the Clippers' Jamal Crawford among reserves, averaging 16.2 points, and has hit two last-second, game-winning shots.

Smith is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in a season in which he didn't want to be a sixth man. But after Woodson and some teammates expressed to Smith how important he would be to the team coming off the bench, he put his focus into being an impact player.

"Not only did I accept it, I embraced it, because it's a huge role for any team," Smith said. "Being a sixth man, the guy coming off the bench, adding scoring, energy, defense -- it's more than just scoring."

Novak a long-range solutionIf teams double-team Anthony or Stoudemire or help on Raymond Felton when he dribbles past his defender, they're taking a major gamble with Novak on the court. He doesn't need a lot of room or time to bury a dagger three.

Playing for his fifth team in six seasons, Novak led the NBA in three-point accuracy last season (47.2 percent) and is third (44.4 percent) this season.

"I'm clear on my role and what my job is to do," Novak said. "When I'm open, I shoot the ball. Whether it goes in or not, I'm spreading the floor."

Plan B has worked

Before the season, Woodson envisioned a starting lineup featuring Stoudemire and a bench boasting veterans Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby. It never materialized because of injuries to Stoudemire, Wallace and Camby.

Kidd has started all but one game, Wallace (a major contributor early) has missed 27 games and Camby has played in only 14. But the Knicks still have flourished as 40-year-old Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Chris Copeland and James White have chipped in at different times.

"One of the strengths of the Knicks' team is their great depth," the longtime NBA coach said. "They have a lot, a lot of good players, and they're veteran players who know how to play."

The Knicks' bench wasn't strong last season, when they averaged 30 points, 22nd in the league. Their lack of depth hurt them in the playoffs.

With Jeremy Lin, Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert injured, Woodson had to start Mike Bibby in the series-ending Game 5 in Miami. Smith, Novak, Jared Jeffries, Toney Douglas, Josh Harrellson, Dan Gadzuric and Jerome Jordan were backups. Bibby, Harrellson, Gadzuric and Jordan no longer are in the NBA.

Woodson and general manager Glen Grunwald made sure the Knicks wouldn't have a thin, inexperienced bench this season, bolstering the roster with quality veterans.

"There's no comparison, and that's no knock against the guys coming off the bench last year," Woodson said. "That's why it was important when Glen sat down with me this summer and talked about getting enough guys in here. That what-if -- if something happens, you got to feel good about that next guy being ready to play. We brought in a lot of guys who can still play."

The Knicks are prepared for what-if now. Their explosive bench is making it difficult for teams to keep up with them for 48 minutes.

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