NEW YORK -- The night began with the guy in the frigid corner of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue eagerly repeating, "Who's sellin' Knicks tickets?" and ended with Doc Rivers exchanging hugs and handshakes in the bustling hallway beneath the stands at Madison Square Garden.
One of the well wishers, noted Knicks fan Spike Lee, embraced Rivers there in the hallway. And though Rivers' team, the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics, had won, it was Rivers who said to Lee, "Great job."
"We got a squad now," Lee said.
"Yeah, you do," Rivers responded.
The Knicks have a squad, and the superstar with broad shoulders their fans have craved for the better part of a lost decade. It isn't LeBron James or Dwyane Wade -- they'll be here Friday night, playing for another team -- and it isn't yet Carmelo Anthony. All of them could take a lesson from Amar'e Stoudemire, who through a quarter of the NBA season is in a class by himself in a category that defies definition.
He wasn't the best free agent acquired this past summer, the summer of all free agencies in the NBA. He wasn't the most sought-after, not even by the Knicks, who stumbled into him by accident.
Despite the chants of, "MVP! MVP!" at the Garden Wednesday night during the Celtics' thrilling 118-116 victory over the Knicks, Stoudemire won't be the league's most valuable player, either. But he is quite simply the basketball superstar who, above all others in the seismic shift of talent that swept the NBA in July, seems best suited to his new home.
In this case, a hastily arranged marriage turned out for the best.
Rivers, his tie loosened and his league-high 11-game winning streak intact, recalled a conversation with Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni over the summer that explained how the Knicks -- long merely an annoyance to the Celtics and all their banners and bravado -- got from there to here.
"I thought the difference was, last year they were in a ton of games, but they didn't have a closer," Rivers was saying in the hallway of the Garden. "Now, they've got a closer. And the closer makes everybody better."
Stoudemire tried to do everything Wednesday night -- start, close and everything in between. He extended his streak of 30-point games to a franchise-record nine before the third quarter was over, and finished with 39 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and a couple tenths of a second shy of delivering an enormous early return on his $99 million contract.
"You've got a go-to guy," Rivers said. "And if you're in games now, and you need to score, you've got him."
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After years of December games at the Garden that were notable only for their folly -- the emotional swings of Stephon Marbury, the fluctuating weight of Eddy Curry, the "Fire Isiah" chants -- this was a rare night of meaningful basketball in a place that has way too generously been described as The Mecca. Sure, Mecca of Madness, maybe, but that's all it was. Until now.
Stoudemire is the one who gets the credit, and good for him. Because when prima donnas in other cities were maneuvering for co-stars to share the credit and blame, Stoudemire stepped up and went solo. Ninety-nine million will make that decision palatable, to be sure. But he came to a place that has been on basketball life support and agreed to try resurrecting it by himself. Failure would've been all on him, too. He would've gone down as sloppy seconds, as the guy who couldn't change this place the way LeBron would have.
Now LeBron and Wade come to New York on Friday, and for them, it's just another stop on the magical mystery tour. Erik Spoelstra has finally unleashed his thoroughbreds and the Heat have ripped off 10 straight on their way to the Garden. The cheers LeBron heard in his pre-free-agent visits will not be among the noise in this reawakened building Friday night. But more than the rage of the jilted, LeBron will bear witness to something else: Stoudemire already has made this his home.
"We are already hungry," Stoudemire said. "We are just trying to eat right now. We have Miami on Friday. It's going to be a tough matchup, but we are prepared and ready."
Preparation didn't matter much on the Celtics' last possession, because they are champions and they did what champions do. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen forced the Knicks to switch on the pick-and-roll, and all Stoudemire could do was helplessly put his hand up as Pierce drained his patented step-back jumper to make it 118-116 with 0.4 seconds left.
Then Stoudemire was open at the top of the 3-point arc and drilled what was counted on the floor as the game-winner -- but accurately was overturned on review as his release came after the buzzer. But listen to what we are describing -- the blow-by-blow of a buzzer-beating finish between the Knicks and Celtics in December. What a concept.
"I've also played here with Pat [Ewing] and L.J. [Larry Johnson] and Spree [Latrell Sprewell], so I've seen it," Kevin Garnett said. "I've seen the duration and the transformation, if you will. I've seen both ends of it. I've been here when you couldn't hear the point guard call a play, and I've been here when you could hear a mouse."
You could hear much more than that Wednesday night; you could hear basketball living and breathing again between 31st and 33rd Streets in the bone-chilling city.
"It was awesome," Rivers said. "It was good to see Spike yelling again. It really was. It was a great atmosphere. You can't get this atmosphere in a lot of places. I think you can get it in Boston, even with the new arena. After that, I don't know."
Stoudemire has ignited the fire, but Rivers pointed out that the man who was really responsible wasn't even in attendance. Knicks president Donnie Walsh, recovering from hip-replacement surgery, started this seemingly impossible journey 2½ years ago. Word is he may make it to the Garden on Friday night, to see what his efforts have wrought -- and to see the two who got away.
"Donnie did two unbelievable things and no one noticed," Rivers said. "Raymond Felton and [Landry] Fields. Those two things sent them to the next level. Without either one of those, they wouldn't be what they are."
What they are really isn't clear yet, but they're better. Better and relevant, for a change.