Perhaps still reeling from the hangover of Monday night's New Year's Eve celebration, the crowd at Madison Square Garden felt as listless and hollow as it had all season for most of the New York Knicks' 105-100 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, the team's fourth defeat in six games.
But with 3:31 left in the opening frame, the deadpan crowd sparked, suddenly, to life -- and it wasn't a reaction to the loose-ball foul that had just been committed by LaMarcus Aldridge, or any other play, in particular. Instead, it was an almost visceral response to Amar'e Stoudemire, who had just risen from the bench, removed his warm-up shirt, popped on his protective goggles and chalked his hands in preparation for his first NBA action of the season.
Hampered by various injuries for much of his 11-year career, the veteran big man Stoudemire's latest setback was the result of a debridement procedure on his left knee, the same one he had microfracture surgery on in 2005. After a ruptured cyst behind the knee limited Stoudemire to just 27 minutes of action in one preseason game this October, doctors made the determination that the six-time All Star would undergo the procedure to remove damaged tissue from the area.
As Stoudemire rehabbed, the Knicks (21-10) rumbled out to their best start in decades, leading the Eastern Conference for most of the first two months of the season before their recent regression. And as a result, there were many legitimate questions about how Stoudemire's eventual return would be received and how the big man's presence might disrupt the delicate balance New York seemed to have found.
In an unremarkable 17 minutes Tuesday, Stoudemire gave little indication as to how his insertion into the lineup will help or hurt the Knicks in the long term, and no one expected a throwback performance out of the one-time Phoenix Suns star in his first action of the season.
But based on the standing ovation the crowd offered as Stoudemire checked into the game for his first minutes of the season -- a gesture that Stoudemire, a man who has tears tattooed on his face, said brought tears to his eyes -- it seems the New York supporters are glad to have him back, regardless.
"I was nervous, my heart was beating fast, I had butterflies in my stomach, and I felt like I was a rookie all over again," said Stoudemire, who had six points on 3-of-8 shooting. "...It was a phenomenal feeling, and I haven't quite felt anything like that before in my career. So it was great to see that the fans were all patient with me and waiting for me to return."
The warm fuzzies wore off quickly, of course, when Stoudemire stepped on the baseline just 15 seconds into his debut, for one of his two turnovers on the night. And he did little to rectify the situation over the course of his 9:31 of first-half action, missing all five shots he took as New York dug itself a 19-point hole and took an 11-point deficit into the break.
However, the second half and coach Mike Woodson's implementation of more pick-and-roll offense brought more success for Stoudemire, who made all three of his field-goal attempts in 7:10 on the court, including two thunderous dunks -- one of them over a helpless Victor Claver.
"The game felt like it was going 100 miles per hour in that first half," Stoudemire said. "I got a couple easy looking shots, open shots, (and was) just a little bit rusty, wasn't able to knock those down. But my second half was a lot better than my first half, and hopefully my second game will be better than my first game. I hope that trend continues."
Before the game, Woodson indicated that he would be slow to work Stoudemire back into the rotation, and wouldn't commit to whether Stoudemire's eventual role will be as a starter or a reserve, though many think he's better suited as a $100 million backup. But for the time being there won't be any pressure -- from the fans or Stoudemire or his teammates -- to get him back playing heavy minutes.
His early offensive struggles aside, Stoudemire looked lost on defense on multiple occasions -- like early in the second quarter, when his missed rotation led directly to an alley-oop dunk for J.J. Hickson (18 points, nine rebounds). Woodson repeatedly called Stoudemire over to the bench to coach him up, and until he's up to speed with New York's defensive schemes, Stoudemire won't see the kind of time he's used to.
"We had some miscues based on some coverages and rotations and things of that nature," Woodson said. "I expected that that was going to happen, so I've got to help him, I've got to let him know. We'll show him some things on film [Wednesday], and hopefully he'll learn from it and we'll build on it day by day and see what happens."
Stoudemire wasn't the only Knick making a return to the lineup Tuesday, as Carmelo Anthony returned from a two-game absence with an efficient 45 points on 24 shots to lead all scorers. But New York struggled to find offensive balance once again, with Anthony and J.R. Smith (28 points, 10-of-22 shooting) accounting for 73 percent of the team's scoring.
And the defense, which was once among the NBA's elite, always seemed to be a step slow covering rookie guard Damian Lillard (21 points), Nicolas Batum (26 points, six 3-pointers) and LaMarcus Aldridge (19 points, 14 rebounds), who torched them all night, and from all over the floor. It would be easy to blame that on Stoudemire's return, but, unfortunately, it has been a problem that has plagued New York for some time.
"Defensively, we're just not where we were earlier in the year, and we've got to get back to that," Woodson said. "Because you can't keep spotting teams 20-plus point leads and think you're going to win basketball games all the time. There's just too much of an uphill climb to do that."
By the fourth quarter, the MSG crowd's rampant lethargy from earlier in the evening seemed to have worn off, especially once Anthony's 3 cut the lead to 100-97 with 57 seconds left and -- after a 3 by Lillard,-- 'Melo again made it a one-score game with an and-one dunk down the lane with 29 seconds on the clock.
But as the Knicks battled back, it was hard not to notice Stoudemire's absence, as he sat on the bench with his knees wrapped in ice. And though there is doubt as to how well Stoudemire will acclimate himself to the lineup around him, it's hard to imagine how New York could possibly be worse off with him.
After the game, Stoudemire said he didn't feel any pain in his knee and said he hardly felt any stiffness, but the true test will be how he feels when he wakes up Wednesday morning. Stoudemire said his veteran teammates told him it would take five or 10 games to get back up to full speed, but the Knicks will gladly take STAT at any speed as long as the strides to form chemistry now pay off later.
"It's always a tough adjustment because you get in a rhythm and get used to certain things, and then things change," said center Tyson Chandler, who had 10 points and seven rebounds Tuesday. "But we know we're a better team with these guys, so we've just got to find a way for us to all be in rhythm."
Added Stoudemire: "That takes time. These guys have been playing well all season long, so there's no rush to force the issue right now. When that time is needed and Coach needs me, then I'll be there."
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