The Knicks lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 105-100 tonight, but the loss is nothing compared to the game's key storyline. Star big man Amar'e Stoudemire returned to the court in his first game since undergoing knee surgery prior to the start of the season, and returned to a standing ovation from the rowdy Madison Square Garden crowd.
Stoudemire only played 17 minutes, and scored six points on 3-of-8 shooting. It wasn't much, but fans need not worry about the man looking rusty tonight.
The fact of the matter is that down the stretch, Knicks coach Mike Woodson is going to make Stoudemire one of a deadly 1-2 punch, the other half of whom is star scorer Carmelo Anthony.
Now, some may think that such an approach is crazy. After all, under former coach Mike D'Antoni, Stoudemire and Anthony and the Knicks as a whole struggled mightily. As hard as it was to admit, it looked as though the two couldn't play together in D'Antoni's specific offensive game.
Then, Woodson took over following D'Antoni's resignation, and it all changed. The Knicks went 18-6 down the stretch, and the new isolation offense turned Stoudemire and Anthony into a viable offensive combination over the last two months of the season.
Anthony ended up averaging 24.6 points and 6.8 rebounds over that stretch, while Stoudemire averaged 17.5 and 7.1.
However, that was with Stoudemire playing power forward. Tonight, and for the foreseeable future, he will likely be the backup center to starter Tyson Chandler. He has a lot of work to do coming back from surgery, and to throw him into the grinder immediately is a recipe for him getting hurt again.
Down the stretch, however, expect the man to work his usual magic at the 4 and be part of an explosive scoring punch that will separate the Knicks from the rest of the pack as the playoffs draw closer.
This is because Woodson's starting lineup, right now, looks like this: Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, Kurt Thomas and Tyson Chandler. It's a bit odd, but Raymond Felton is out with a broken hand and Iman Shumpert is still recovering from ACL surgery, thus the presence of reserves.
Eventually, Woodson's lineup will likely look like this: Felton and Shumpert at the 1 and 2 spots, and Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler manning the frontcourt. Each player will score as necessary, but Woodson's system will call for Anthony and Stoudemire to be the 1-2 punch in the scoring department.
As a result, by gradually returning to this rotation, Woodson will get the best out of his star big man. Save for his 6'11", 245-pound frame, Stoudemire's best skill is his ability to stretch the floor on offense. Given Anthony's hot start and the growing likelihood that he will be double-teamed as the season goes on, Stoudemire will surely be left open.
This gives Woodson and the Knicks an opportunity to turn Stoudemire into a great secret weapon, possibly the greatest in the Eastern Conference. He is so hard to stop when he's got a hot hand, and his offensive resume speaks for itself.
By slowly incorporating him back into the lineup, Woodson will help keep the Knicks as a team to beat in the league, and Stoudemire's work will just be the icing on the cake.