|Back spasms affected Stoudemire in the '11 playoffs, and the Knicks were swept out of Round 1. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- In a cramped Knicks locker room Monday night, everything seemed to be in place. The usual assortment of shoes, flip-flops, bottles of lotion and tape-cutters were strewn all around. Clothing items were draped in every locker.
Almost every locker. Every locker but one.
The stall assigned to Amar'e Stoudemire was empty, somehow symbolically so, devoid of all forms of normal postgame basketball life. A single miniature energy drink sat there, unopened and lonely.
For the Knicks, who finally climbed back to .500 with an 89-80 victory against supposed eighth-seed challenger Milwaukee, life without Stoudemire has begun.
It is yet another chapter in a bizarre, virtually indescribable season for the Knicks, a team whose star power has been vastly outshined by circumstances that defy explanation. From efforts to merge the seemingly ill-fitting talents of Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, to the global phenomenon that was Linsanity, to the doldrums that led to the resignation of coach Mike D'Antoni, and now, a streak of seven wins in eight games under interim coach Mike Woodson.
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"We really didn't know the extent of his condition, and still don't," said Tyson Chandler, when asked if any time had been spent before the game discussing Stoudemire's absence due to a bulging disk in his back. "I really feel bad for Amar'e, though, because I know how passionate he is. ... He was definitely on our minds and our hearts."
Before the most threadbare victory of his brief tenure in D'Antoni's chair, Woodson revealed that an MRI on Stoudemire's back had divulged the discouraging news. Stoudemire, averaging a full five points below his career average at 17.6 points per game, is out indefinitely.
Word on whether Stoudemire will need season-ending surgery could come as early as Tuesday, when he meets in Miami with a consultant who worked with him on his back during the lockout, a person with knowledge of the situation said.
When asked if Stoudemire would be back for the playoffs -- which will begin in a little more than a month -- Woodson said, "I don't know."
Had he been asked if the Knicks have a chance to win a playoff series without a healthy Stoudemire, Woodson would've been hard pressed to respond any more definitively. He was asked, after one of the ugliest basketball games you'll ever see, if this Knicks team can win games like this with neither team reaching 90 points.
"Welp, I hope so," Woodson said.
So, several things came into focus for the Knicks on Monday night, at the month-to-go mark in a season that changes every time you blink.
First, Stoudemire's struggles and ineffectiveness -- his lack of mobility, one of the game's most potent finishers unable to finish at the rim -- suddenly made sense. Other explanations had seemed reasonable: the delicate balance of getting enough shots for Stoudemire and Anthony, the emergence of Jeremy Lin in February, and assertions that Stoudemire put on weight during the lockout in an effort to strengthen his back, which had rendered him ineffective in a 4-0 playoff sweep at the hands of the Celtics last spring. Stoudemire's first back-to-back 20-point games since February last week seemed to support the notion that he just needed time to get back to his ideal playing weight in the 255-pound range.
Then, you heard the news of Stoudemire's MRI on Monday and thought back to a game in Miami a month ago, and all these explanations rang hollow. Before the game, I remember seeing Stoudemire in the visiting locker room of American Airlines Arena with a 25-pound plate in each hand. He was holding the plates gingerly at each side and slowly, delicately performing deadlifts. This, an hour before competing against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, was not the routine of a man in good health.
Stoudemire had 13 points and six turnovers that night as the Knicks and Lin (eight turnovers) came crashing back to Earth with a 102-88 loss to the Heat. So began a spiral of seven losses in eight games that resulted in D'Antoni stepping aside on March 16. Ten days later, Stoudemire is down and out, possibly for good.
"It's tough," said Baron Davis, who had nine turnovers in his first start of the season with Lin out due to a sore right knee. "Amar'e is our brother. He's our leader on this team. He's the general. It's going to be tough. But we know he's a hard worker and he's going to come back. I have the utmost confidence that he'll be back and we just have to hold the fort down until he gets back."
With no Lin to direct the offense -- still, mostly, D'Antoni's offense -- Monday was no time to draw conclusions about how the Knicks might go about doing that. Ultimately, their fortunes will rise and fall with Anthony, whose 28 points against the Bucks were the most he has scored since Woodson took over.
Woodson's style is to play through his most potent scorer, and that is Anthony -- by a mile without Stoudemire on the floor. Woodson has displayed a willingness to give Lin more freedom than he normally affords his point guard, but even so, Anthony doesn't have to demand the ball as much now as he did in D'Antoni's point guard-driven attack. Woodson hasn't changed much about the offense, but he has preached feeding the post and feeding his best player, and there's no doubt who that is.
"We're taking advantage of iso situations," Davis explained, "and running the ball through Melo."
And so it will be. In a strange way, the detractors who said Anthony and Stoudemire couldn't play together will either find vindication or comeuppance, depending on how far Anthony carries the Knicks without him.
"The test is here," Anthony said. "It's right in front of us."
Anthony had 12 rebounds to go with his 28 points, was 8 for 20 from the field and 12 for 12 from the foul line. He reinjured his groin and fought through it -- the same injury that shelved him for seven games last month during the height of Linsanity.
As if this season couldn't get any weirder for the Knicks, there is also this: The team that traded half the roster to the Nuggets for Anthony -- still the right thing to do, in my humble opinion -- has now become a facsimile of the old Nuggets. Depending on whether the Knicks play small without Stoudemire -- as they did Monday night with Anthony at power forward and Landry Fields at the three -- their lineup and how they'll play sans Amar'e is stylistically similar to the team Anthony left behind in Denver.
The Nuggets team that went to the Western Conference finals in 2009 had a playmaking point guard (Chauncey Billups) and a defensive-minded shooting guard (Dahntay Jones). The Knicks have Lin (or Davis) and Fields (or Iman Shumpert). Tyson Chandler is a better version of Nene, Jared Jeffries (also out with an injury Monday night) is a worse version of Kenyon Martin, and Melo is Melo. In the Knicks' version, Steve Novak plays Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith plays himself. The world will forever be searching for another Chris "Birdman" Anderson, but you get my point.
Those Nuggets played through Anthony, adapted to the unorthodox manner in which he posts up near the 3-point line on either wing and goes to work in isolation, and rode his surreal scoring gifts to six games against the eventual champion Lakers. If the Knicks hope to replicate that kind of result, there's little question they would need Stoudemire. For now, life without him -- and life with Anthony back in his comfort zone as option 1 and 1A -- have begun.
"He reached down and did what he had to do to get the job done," Woodson said.
Get used to that, the next detour on this strange ride for the 2011-12 Knicks. Depending on how things turn out, maybe this chapter will even have its own nickname.