By John Schmeelk
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So far, Mike Woodson has gotten straight A's for handling the Knicks since he took over as head coach. He adjusted when he lost Amar'e Stoudemire, and the Knicks kept winning. Then Jeremy Lin was declared out for the season with a knee injury, and he changed his offense to revolve a lot more around Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks kept winning, thanks to great effort, defense and the unbelievable play of Carmelo Anthony.
But now, even with the Knicks having already clinched a playoff spot, comes Mike Woodson's greatest challenge. He has four regular-season games left to fit Amar'e Stoudemire back into the starting lineup. It's easy to make the argument that Mike Woodson's tenure is already an unmitigated success, having led the Knicks to the playoffs after a coaching change and so many injuries. In truth, the job should already be his for next season, unless Tom Thibodeau can somehow be wooed from the Bulls to come back to the Knicks.
If Mike Woodson wants to become a part of Knicks lore and assure his return, however, he needs to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Whether it's the Heat or the Bulls, the Knicks won't beat either team the way they've played the last three weeks. It is just too much to ask of Carmelo Anthony to carry an entire team on his shoulders offensively for an entire seven-game series. Both of the Knicks' potential opponents (does anyone really think they will catch Orlando for the 6th seed?) are well-coached and strong defensively. Over the course of a long series, both will make the adjustments necessary to slow down Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks' supporting cast is not good enough to take on that sort of responsibility.
Amar'e Stoudemire changes that fact. First, Mike Woodson needs to determine how healthy he is. Will he look like the player he appeared to be right before the injury, the Stoudemire of December, January and February? Or will he be an absolute shell of himself like he was after hurting his back against the Celtics in the playoffs last year? Once Mike Woodson figures that out (and he should already have an idea based on practice) he can figure out how to use him.
I don't mind Stoudemire starting along with Carmelo Anthony, unlike a lot of pundits. With the minutes both guys play, they are going to be on the court together for 20 minutes a game. It's unavoidable. Despite common opinion, both were productive on the floor at the same time after the Carmelo Anthony trade. Their lack of success early this season had more to do with their injuries and resulting poor shooting than any sort of incompatibility. If it keeps Stoudemire happy, he might as well start.
What Mike Woodson does need to do is make sure one of the two is always on the floor. With Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis now both starters, the bench struggles to score unless Steve Novak is raining threes or JR Smith gets hot. Either Stoudemire or Anthony must be on the floor with this group to give them a fighting chance of putting the ball in the basket. It would give the Knicks the added scoring punch they need to have a chance against the Heat or the Bulls. Stoudemire's presence on the floor, if nothing else, will make it even harder for teams to double-team Carmelo Anthony.
Right now, this is Carmelo Anthony's team and everyone knows it. He has been playing so well that Stoudemire's return won't hurt his confidence or change the way he is playing. And it shouldn't, since Anthony is playing like a Top 3 player right now. The offense should run through Anthony, with Stoudemire helping out when he is off the floor or when double-teams come. The position change to small forward shouldn't be a problem either. Teams have been putting their best defender on Anthony regardless of where he is playing. Power forwards, more often than not, have been put on Landry Fields. It was Luol Deng, LeBron James and Paul Pierce on Carmelo, not Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Brandon Bass.
The adjustment will have to come from Stoudemire, and it won't be an easy one. He has never been a great isolation player, and the Knicks don't have a point guard to help set him up on pick-and-roll plays. The first thing Stoudemire needs to do is focus on defense and rebounding. The worst thing he can do is make the Knicks worse on that end of the floor. Offensively, he has to be able to hit the open spot-up mid-range jump shot, and move without the ball to score off of Carmelo Anthony's playmaking ability. Melo has been a more than willing passer, and Stoudemire can get a lot of easy shots off his ball movement.
He will have to be willing to be that secondary player, but an indispensable one that the Knicks can't make any real playoff noise without. Amar'e Stoudemire has shown himself to be nothing less than the consummate professional and team player in his time with the Knicks, and I don't think that will change now. He and Carmelo can work together, and they are going to have to if the Knicks want to win a championship.
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With Carmelo and Amar'e back on the floor together, can the Knicks pull off the upset and get out of the first round? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below...
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