NEW YORK – Sometimes, it's still easy to forget Amar'e Stoudemire walked in here and validated the migration of star talent to Madison Square Garden. New York had missed on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but yet there was Stoudemire standing with an admirable defiance, cap askew, declaring, "The Knicks are back."
Together, they were a high-risk, high-reward partnership, his knees forever threatening an expiration date that could come sooner than the end of his five-year, $100 million contract. As a bridge of talent to these Knicks, Stoudemire played the part of a franchise player until Carmelo Anthony forced his way to New York.
With this roster, the Knicks don't need Stoudemire to be his old Phoenix Suns self – merely the more polished, more mature player with which he's transformed himself. When the Knicks needed to end a four-game losing streak on Sunday, Stoudemire delivered his best performance of the season – 22 points and one missed shot – in a 99-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
If the explosion that made him an All-Star has been diminished with knee surgeries, Stoudemire still has the capacity and character to be a pivotal part of a conference championship contender. This was old-school Amar'e jump hooks, jump shots and springy put-backs at the rim. Slowly, surely, Stoudemire is making a case to be a bigger part of New York's conference championship chase. He makes that case with the second unit, and also makes it on the floor with Anthony.
"They played great together tonight," Knicks point guard Raymond Felton said. "That is what they're capable of, and this is the beginning."
The Knicks are still too much at the mercy of those Felton and Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith jumpers; they're too unwilling to trust Stoudemire on the floor in the final minutes of games.
"I think the limited minutes of 30 is great for me so far," Stoudemire said. "It's keeping me fresh."
Fresh for when it matters come April and May, when the Knicks will need him to be a bigger part of closing out games. As the Knicks have too often resembled a second-round playoff loser in the past month, there comes a time when they'll have to consider that Stoudemire needs to be on the floor when they need baskets in the final minutes.
"If we keep winning then we’re good," Stoudemire said. "When we start losing a little bit, then you start thinking about it."
These Knicks are still a combustible creation, and bringing Kenyon Martin into the locker room on a 10-day contract does little to diminish that dynamic. At times, the Knicks have unraveled with technical fouls and ejections, imploded in big moments and big games. Anthony lost his mind on Sunday, needlessly slapping Sixers center Spencer Hawes in the back of the head. After Hawes stepped into Anthony, Tyson Chandler made himself a part of the scrum.
Once, 'Melo started a Nuggets-Knicks melee at the Garden, and make no mistake: Stars simply don't take swings the way Anthony did on Sunday night – open hand, or not. The NBA could still take a look at a shot above the neck, and come back with a more severe punishment on Monday morning.
Until Stoudemire gets back to the playoffs and washes away the embarrassment of smacking that fire extinguisher in Miami a season ago, that stain stays on him. That's part of the record, and no one wants a complete cleansing more than him.
After Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, scored a $100 million deal on Stoudemire's uninsurable knees, it's understandable that no one wants to hear about Stoudemire "sacrificing." Still, he's been a tremendous teammate and has come back from knee surgery this season willing to do whatever Knicks coach Mike Woodson has wanted from him.
That'll never change, but make no mistake: With an opportunity, Stoudemire believes he can do more for these Knicks. All that work with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer, and he's still dying to unleash it.
"I feel like those moves are now natural moves," he said. "I practice every day on every single move, and there’s 15 moves and [people] only saw the ones that are just easier at this point."
For those who see Stoudemire through the prism of a $20 million annual salary and deteriorating knees, remember something: This Knicks revival started with him in July of 2010, and ultimately New York will need him again to usurp the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.