Amar'e Stoudemire hasn't taken the court for the New York Knicks since March 7, forced to the sidelines by debris in his right knee that required surgical cleanup just two months after returning from having the same debridement procedure on his left knee. STAT's second months-long absence of the season appears to be at an end, though.
After going through his first full-contact workout since surgery on Monday and participating in practices, walkthroughs and 4-on-4 scrimmages throughout the week, the 30-year-old former All-Star stands one Friday all-clear away from returning to the New York lineup on Saturday night when the Knicks visit Bankers Life Fieldhouse to take on the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals series.
Stoudemire has been out of action since March 7, yet insists he will return and “can play at a high level.
“Anytime you get on the court, you have a chance to make on impact on the game,” Stoudemire said. “So if I am able to play Game 3, whatever time Coach [Mike] Woodson puts me in, I am going to contribute.”
Woodson said the 6-11 Stoudemire can help the Knicks on the front line against the taller Pacers and that the plan is for him to play “somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes.”
“We could really use him right now,” center Tyson Chandler said. “We’re playing against a big team, big lineups. It’s a great opportunity for him to be out there. It will give us scoring presence on the block and so we could really use him right now. He’s been looking good so far.”
Of course, there's a pretty big difference between looking good in workouts against the immortal Earl Baron and looking good against the likes of David West and Roy Hibbert during a playoff series. West, for his part, doesn't view Stoudemire's return as a major element on which the Pacers must key, according to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star:
“No, it doesn’t change what we’re doing,” West said. “He’s another guy for them to use. We think they’ve been great and hard to defend with that small lineup so we don’t know what they’re going to do on that side. We have to worry about what we’re going to do on this side.”
That worrying will likely focus on taking better care of the basketball against the swarming double-teams and aggressive traps that resulted in 21 turnovers and 32 New York points in the Knicks' series-evening Game 2 rout, on ensuring more matching of All-NBA-caliber perimeter defender Paul George on Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, who got loose (largely against West) for 22 second-half points on Tuesday, and on finding more offensive touches for West and center Roy Hibbert, who combined for just 14 field-goal attempts in Game 2 (one more than shooting guard Lance Stephenson). Those are all much more important issues for Indiana to address than a returning reserve forward with two bad knees.
Still, Pacers coach Frank Vogel and his 7-foot-2 defensive stopper respect Stoudemire's scoring touch enough to know he could provide an offensive spark in Game 3, according to the Daily News' Peter Botte:
As for Stoudemire, Vogel said the six-time All-Star’s return “should only strengthen that team,” while calling him “another guy that can flat-out play and flat-out score the ball and somebody you have to account for.”
Added Hibbert: “First and foremost, I’m happy that he’s healthy. I’ve played against Stoudemire since I was in high school, so it’s nice to see him healthy. But we have to have the same mind-set.
“I’m figuring out in my mind if they’re going to go with a big lineup with [Kenyon] Martin and Stoudemire with the second unit, or what’s going to happen there. I’m just trying to think the game. My mind-set is just [to play] defense and protect the paint, and he’s another offensive threat when he comes in. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Hibbert's not alone in wondering exactly what Stoudemire's return might look like and what sort of Stoudemire-featuring lineups Woodson might test out.
Given the dearth of depth on the Pacers' bench, it does seem like there could be an opportunity for Amar'e to have an impact working out of the post against the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph or as a screen-and-roll partner for Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd and/or J.R. Smith when Anthony and Chandler need a breather. A potential frontcourt pairing with Martin might make sense on the defensive end, with Kenyon assuming responsibility for whichever Pacer big is most threatening at the time in an attempt to minimize the damage Stoudemire can do (which is no easy feat).
It smells like trouble offensively, though; Stoudemire was clearly most effective before his injury operating from the left block and attacking the rim, and with a game heavily predicated on screening, diving to the basket and crashing the glass, Martin doesn't seem like an ideal floor-spacing complement (though he has canned a few midrange jumpers this postseason). We don't know for sure what the duo would look like — they played a grand total of nine minutes together over two games during the regular season, according to NBA.com's stat tool — but it seems like a pairing with which Woodson would have to tread lightly.
Plus, as West noted, plugging Stoudemire into more traditional two-big lineups alongside Martin or Chandler would seem to create a similar problem to the Chandler-Martin-Anthony lineups Kenyon advocated for before Game 2 — removing the Knicks' primary offensive advantages, which feature Anthony matched up on slower fours alongside more shooting/passing gifts on the floor at the swing positions and in the backcourt. Those lineups provided the backbone for the Knicks' season-long offensive surge and helped spark New York's second-half destruction of Indiana in Game 2; moving away from them now in favor of going bigger to reintegrate Stoudemire would seem to be a strategic misstep.
How much Woodson relies on Stoudemire in Game 3 will figure to depend on the level of rust the $100 million man has to knock off after two months on the shelf. If he can hit the ground running with the form that made him one of the league's best reserve scorers over a 16-game stretch prior to his injury, he could be a real asset in punishing Indiana's backup bigs. But if he looks like the tentative, steps-slow, not-entirely-there player of the first couple of weeks after his New Year's Day return, then "somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes" will almost certainly be too much for a Knicks team fighting for its playoff life to afford.