|Will Amar'e ruin the Knicks' momentum once he returns to the starting lineup? Berger says yes. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- One 3-pointer after another rained down and landed in the basket, and with each successive launch, the Garden fans rose to their feet. In this weird NBA season, this nationally televised showdown between the rival Knicks and Celtics turned into a shooting contest.
The Knicks won, not as easily as they should have, but they had fun doing it. It was a party vibe, a pleasant surprise for the patrons in loosened ties and rolled-up shirtsleeves stopping by on their way home from work on the island of Manhattan. To be honest, with all those threes going down -- eight for Steve Novak and seven for J.R. Smith, who combined for 50 points -- the building sort of felt the way it did that first night when Jeremy Lin came off the bench and changed the Knicks' season.
As we know, the Knicks' season has undergone many transformations, and this is only the latest. They've had Linsanity, and this was Threesanity for a while Tuesday night. Though he made only two of the Knicks' 19 3-pointers in a 118-110 victory over Boston, this run of 14 victories in 19 games has been all about the biggest name on the Garden's Seventh Avenue marquee: Carmelo Anthony.
Why ruin a good thing? Unwittingly, unintentionally, and powerless to do anything different, that is what Knicks coach Mike Woodson is about to do when Amar'e Stoudemire returns from a back injury, probably Friday in Cleveland.
This is Melo's team, Melo's show now at the Garden. It's everything he ever wanted, and more, when he orchestrated the trade from Denver last season. It's hard to argue with the results; the Knicks are humming since Woodson, a more Melo-friendly coach, took over for Mike D'Antoni, who dared demand team basketball from his star-studded roster.
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And in the 12 games that Anthony's co-star, Stoudemire, has missed because of a herniated disk, Anthony is averaging 30.4 points -- including his two highest-scoring games of the season, 43 against the Bulls and 42 against the Heat. He had 35 Tuesday night, doing whatever he wanted, along with 12 rebounds and 10 assists in his second career triple-double. This after failing to score 20 in Woodson's first seven games with Stoudemire on the floor.
So what happens now? When Stoudemire comes back, Woodson said he'll "absolutely" be in the starting lineup. And as good as Woodson has been for the Knicks, this is absolutely the wrong decision.
He should take a page from the book of Doc Rivers, who had the clout and cojones to leave Avery Bradley in the starting lineup over Ray Allen once the aforementioned future Hall of Famer returned from an ankle injury. How did Rivers do it?
"He just sat me down and said, 'You're coming off the bench,'" Allen said.
Oh. Funny what happens when your coach has the authority and job security to make tough, unpopular decisions when they're needed for the good of the team.
"I just think you know your team and be honest with them," Rivers said. "If it's the right thing to do to start him, you start him. I think all players are good with what's right for the team."
But in this case, Woodson has the same problem that befell D'Antoni, who could not, as a lame duck on the last year of his contract, credibly demand from Anthony what needed to be demanded of him. Now Woodson, an interim coach who knows his bread is buttered with the same knife that cuts Stoudemire's $18 million paycheck, cannot leave that $18 million on the bench.
"I've got to see if this thing is going to work," Woodson said. "You look at the numbers with Melo and Amar'e and it didn't work early in the year. It didn't work with Jeremy Lin. I look at things a little differently.
"Amar'e is a starting power forward, and maybe a five, and Melo can play three or four," Woodson said. "Tyson [Chandler] is a starting center in this league. I've got to make this thing work. It's my job as the head coach to make it work."
In a perfect world, Woodson's job would not be to make any ill-fitting pieces fit -- just as D'Antoni's job shouldn't have been to scrap the most effective offensive system in basketball and just give the ball to Anthony. In a perfect world, Woodson's job would be to play the lineups and combinations that give the Knicks their best chance in a playoff series against the Bulls or Heat.
Their best chance would be with Stoudemire, a starter for all his life in basketball, coming off the bench. There are many reasons, and they're all better than some vague, pointless notion of "making this thing work" with Anthony and Stoudemire.
The Knicks have been a much better defensive team since Woodson took over. But since Woodson had been running the defense all season, what changed? Lately, it's been that Stoudemire and Lin -- the Knicks' two weakest defenders -- haven't been playing. The beneficiary from Lin's absence has been Iman Shumpert, who is rapidly becoming one of the peskiest on-ball defenders in the NBA.
Stoudemire's absence also has allowed Anthony to slide to the power forward spot, where he's played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of Team USA. Not only has Melo been more active and engaged defensively against opposing fours, but there isn't a power forward in the league who can defend him. It's the kind of offensive mismatch for which Rivers said there are only two comparables.
"If he's playing right," Rivers said, "you'd put him, Kevin Durant and Dirk [Nowitzki] maybe in a category by themselves."
The Celtics have thrived with Allen, who missed Tuesday night's game when his ankle flared up, coming off the bench. The Grizzlies have done the same with Zach Randolph, who has sparked Memphis' second unit and allowed Rudy Gay to keep his offensive rhythm with the starters.
The troubling part about Woodson's insistence on re-inserting Stoudemire into the starting lineup is that he has a ready-made excuse that has nothing to do with whether Amar'e and Melo can co-exist. He has a free pass, and he isn't going to use it. Back injuries are tricky, and there would be nothing wrong with letting Stoudemire ease back into the flow in a temporarily reduced role.
"If that's what's best for the team, he's got to be comfortable with it," Allen said of Stoudemire. "If that's what the coach needs him to do, if the team's playing well, you kind of ease your way back into it."
By leaving the starting lineup alone, Woodson could allow the Knicks to start games by establishing their defensive identity, which is what wins in the playoffs. Offensively, it would allow Anthony -- one of the game's true scoring treasures -- to continue his Durant- and Dirk-like assault on helpless opposing defenses. As for Stoudemire, the damage he could do with the second unit -- without the duplicate pick-and-roll talents of Chandler or Anthony occupying the same spots on the floor -- would make the Knicks' bench lethal.
"Amar'e is a good teammate, a good guy," Rivers said. "I don't think it would be a problem."
But Woodson can't or won't do what Rivers did with Allen, or simply believes he has no choice -- when, in reality, he has the easiest choice that either Knicks coach has had all season.
If we've learned anything from this strange Knicks season, it's that things change in a heartbeat -- for better or worse. Lin created a global sensation and made the Knicks equally watchable and unguardable during that stretch in February. Anthony's return stopped Linsanity in its tracks, and D'Antoni was gone faster than the whole thing started in the first place.
Now, Stoudemire's return could derail the Knicks again. But only if they let it happen, by focusing on trying to make things fit instead of doing what makes sense.
"You've got to win, that's the bottom line," Woodson said. "It's my job as the head coach to make sure that happens."
With the same problems as his predecessor, in so many ways.