Just moments after the disappointing news was announced that the final shot by Amar'e Stoudemire did not count, resulting in the Knicks' 118-116 loss to the Celtics, the groans turned to a common thought that prevailed throughout the sold-out Garden crowd.
What a game!
The customers went home satisfied - perhaps, at the very least, entertained - mainly because of something that hasn't been said about this franchise in a decade: The star player was worth every cent of admission.
"Amar'e,'' Mike D'Antoni said, "was unbelievable.''
And Stoudemire did almost everything he could to produce what would have been a galvanizing win for a team looking to legitimize an eight-game winning streak. He finished with 39 points, but he needed 41. He totaled 10 rebounds, but he needed 11. He had three blocked shots, but he needed four. Paul Pierce left him four-tenths of a second to answer his game-winning dagger, which he shot over Stoudemire, and Stoudemire needed five-tenths.
He was so incredibly close, yet just painfully far enough away.
Rewind to a moment on Sunday afternoon, in the visitors' locker room, where Carmelo Anthony raved about Stoudemire and the red-hot Knicks. Anthony was posed a question he could answer only with a grin: Do you think this team is one player away?
How many times after losses like this did Patrick Ewing ask himself the same question? The difference is that those losses were in the playoffs. Stoudemire still has to accomplish that with this team, but all indications are that, even as the lone star, he can get them there. Stoudemire is the epitome of a star player, one who lifts a crowd, and a team, on his shoulders.
"You see guys like that playing as hard as they are, wanting to win as bad as they do, it makes you want to raise your game,'' rookie Landry Fields said. "If you're working hard, you can't be out there not working as hard as them.''
But is the goal of overachieving enough? It is a question the Knicks' front office is deliberating at this very moment as Donnie Walsh and his staff strategize over packages that will be enough to convince the Denver Nuggets to make a deal that will send Anthony to New York to join Stoudemire and the emerging Raymond Felton (26 points, 14 assists) to make a run at it this season. A start like this does change the game plan somewhat, from a patient approach to aggressively advancing the cause.
The fear, of course, is that a blockbuster trade would result in breaking up some of this roster and, as a result, some of the chemistry that has developed during the last month. And that is a risk that grows more intimidating as you get later into the season. The Heat, which is up next at the Garden Friday, went through its issues early in the season but now finally is starting to find cohesiveness. The Celtics, however, hit the ground running with their Big Three in 2007-08.
"I thought I had a group that was past their day in some ways, where they weren't looking to establish themselves,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "and they were so giving to the team that it wasn't as difficult as it would be in Miami.''
The concern is if Stoudemire and Anthony, both coming into their primes, could find that kind of common goal, as well.
At this point, what this loss proved was that the Knicks, with Stoudemire, can go toe-to-toe with a championship-caliber team.
What it also proved was that they're not quite there yet.
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