After a long period of recovery and uncertainty, Amar'e Stoudemire has reestablished himself as a key contributor for the New York Knicks.
If you're just looking at Stoudemire's stat line, it's difficult to see how his season has been a success so far.
STAT missed all of November and December after undergoing yet another surgery on his left knee. In his 20 games in 2013, he has averaged 13.6 points and 4.8 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game. Stoudemire has yet to start a game this season.
That's a disappointing output if you're thinking in terms of a six-time All-Star who is one of the best scoring big men in the NBA. However, there was ample reason to doubt Amar'e would return to that form.
He was a shell of his former self last season; Stoudemire scored less, rebounded less and shot less efficiently than he had in at least eight years. It's difficult to say whether it was sadder when Amar'e missed 19 games or when he was hobbled and ineffective in the other 47.
With Carmelo Anthony playing the best basketball of his career and Amar'e out of the picture early in the season, it seemed like Stoudemire might not be an integral player in New York.
Thankfully for both player and team, that hasn't been the case.
For all the Knicks three-point proficiency, they have wanted for pure scorers this season. Obviously Carmelo is one of the best in the league in that department, but the offense loses direction when he leaves the floor. Other than Melo and J.R. Smith, Stoudemire is the only player in New York who can effectively get his own shot.
Having a big man who can create something off the bounce is a nice commodity for a team that generates so much from the perimeter.
On this play against the Boston Celtics, Rajon Rondo did an admirable job manning up against Anthony, keeping his arms active to slow Melo's back-down. When Kevin Garnett takes a step to his right to help, Melo sizes up the situation and kicks it to Stoudemire just inside the arc.
When Amar'e was rehabbing, Knicks fans feared he wouldn't be able to do just what he does here. Kevin Garnett is by no means a slouch on defense, but with one dribble and two hard steps towards the rim, STAT blows right by him for a largely uncontested dunk.
Of course, you could argue that those points wouldn't have come so easily if KG got some help on the drive, but that's the beauty of Amar'e's execution.
The Knicks had three guards and Anthony on the floor, using Stoudemire as their lone big man. That forces Garnett to move away from the rim to cover STAT on the perimeter, leaving no one to contest the bucket after the drive.
In a league where teams are playing two big men fewer and fewer, having a guy who can draw defenders out and still finish at the rim is invaluable.
Here's Amar'e taking advantage of Garnett's post-mate, Jared Sullinger, on both ends of the floor.
First, in a rare example of heads-up defensive play, Stoudemire crosses the paint to block the rookie's putback attempt. He has to work his way around Iman Shumpert and past Steve Novak to make it over in time, but his footwork and effort make the stop and kick-start the transition offense.
As Pablo Prigioni leads the Knicks down the court, the Celtics are lackadaisical getting back on defense. This isn't just about Amar'e catching Sullinger loafing, though; it's about New York's walking wounded running the floor.
Watching a beleaguered STAT in 2011-12, it was difficult to imagine he'd be running the floor and finishing breaks with reverse jams again. When he was sitting to start this season, it seemed to confirm that Stoudemire's star days were over.
While it's no great victory to beat Jared Sullinger in a race, the vision of Stoudemire running the floor and scoring with a flourish proves that he still has the tools to be the scorer the Knicks need.
But New York didn't need another starter when Amar'e returned; Melo was carrying the scoring load just fine, and Tyson Chandler was excelling as the roll man on pick-and-rolls.
The Knicks needed a weapon off the bench, and the greatest testament to Stoudemire's professionalism is that he obliged.
In doing so, he put the team's balance over his own ego, sacrificing the limelight of the starting lineup to run with the second unit. That ended up being the best of both worlds; the Knicks kept a productive unit intact, while Amar'e got to be the focal point of his own sets.
This dunk over Greg Stiemsma never would have happened if Stoudemire hadn't accepted his place in the second unit.
He's out there with Prigioni, Smith, Novak and Marcus Camby—all bench players for the Knicks. Smith feeds Stoudemire on the block, where STAT shakes off an overzealous Dante Cunningham and puts Stiemsma on a poster.
Had Carmelo Anthony been in the game, he very well could have been set up on the wing, in which case Amar'e wouldn't have had a chance to make that play.
Instead, Stoudemire accepted his role and beat an undisciplined defense for an opportunistic bucket. He has been making the most of his opportunities this season in more ways than one, and that's what makes him so vital to the Knicks' success once again.
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