There's no question that the Knicks need every bit of production these guys are providing. If New York wants to pose a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will be crucial to supplement Carmelo Anthony with multiple scorers.
Save for Melo's play, the individual contributions were not of paramount importance when the Knicks were rolling earlier in the season. Now banged up and out of sync, they need their playmakers to step up and carry the load.
The Knicks are showing the affects of the long NBA season on both ends of the floor. Though Amar'e gives New York an offensive dimension it had been lacking before, Smith's all-around play makes him the more critical piece.
Offense Off the Bounce
As well as the Knicks have shot from three-point range this season, they have had some struggles creating looks inside the arc.
New York has gotten where it is now because it is third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, per Hoopdata. But sometimes you just need someone who can knock down an ugly look, efficiency be damned.
This is where J.R. Smith and his career year enter the equation.
Though his shooting percentage—both in general and from beyond the arc—are down this year, Smith is scoring a career-high 16.1 points per game due to his integral role in the Knicks offense.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist picked Smith up at the top of the key, hounding him on his drive and forcing him into a long two at the buzzer. Even though Smith couldn't get an ideal shot, he was still able to create space with the step-back to set up an open look.
That's the kind of thing the Knicks need from Smith—especially on occasions when Melo leaves the floor. He is a superb athlete with a great handle and he's as fearless as they come with the ball in his hands. Considering how adept he is at knocking down tough shots, he's a great stabilizer for when the Knicks offense isn't executing.
Who would've thought before this season that erratic J.R. Smith would be a consistent threat for the Knicks?
Other guys may be more efficient with their shots, but few are more effective when you need someone to get a look.
Pulling the Defense In
If New York wants to live and die with its barrage of threes, it's going to need Amar'e Stoudemire to keep teams honest inside.
Don't dwell too much on how foolish STAT makes Damian Wilkins look on this post-up; that's not the main issue here.
Okay, you can dwell a little bit, because it's awesome how Amar'e finds a way to go around him and through him at the same time. He barely makes contact with the overmatched swingman as he spins towards the hoop, yet Wilkins gets thrown back by the force.
Wilkins is actually the least interesting defender on the screen, though.
Not only does Lavoy Allen leave Melo to double, but Dorell Wright and Evan Turner are both leaning toward the paint when Stoudemire makes his move. That attention left Smith, Raymond Felton and Steve Novak all with open looks at threes.
There were questions about whether Amar'e would make it back to full strength after his injury-riddled 2011-12 season. While not fully there yet, he's well on his way, showing flashes of his stardom in his play off the bench.
For all of Stoudemire's offensive contributions, he is still a major defensive liability.
This is his 11th season in the league, and yet Amar'e has never gotten a handle on defensive fundamentals—especially on the pick-and-roll.
As the snarky fan who cut this video so astutely points out, Stoudemire ignores the golden rule of defending the pick-and-roll: See the ball, see your man.
Caught in no man's land as Nando de Colo drives off the Boris Diaw pick, Amar'e commits hard to Diaw's roll. As he chases Diaw toward the basket, he completely turns his back to the point guard; Stoudemire is not even looking at de Colo when he goes up for the uncontested lay-in.
If only that were the only area in which STAT flounders on defense.
Though Mike Woodson occasionally tried using Amar'e at center when he returned in order to spell Tyson Chandler, the defense falls apart in that alignment.
New York could really use Stoudemire as a backup center with Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace out, but the star big man is just comprehensively inept on defense. When considering his importance to a Knicks team aspiring for an NBA title, that cannot be ignored.
Win with Hustle
While Woodson can't get the defensive play he wants out of Stoudemire, he has gotten through to Smith.
Notorious for his adversarial relationships with his coaches, Smith has responded to Woodson's demanding yet encouraging approach. As Al Iannazzone of Newsday reported, Smith's newfound effort on the defensive end is a direct result of Woody's guidance.
"I just look at the game totally different," Smith said. "A lot of times, I was trying to score as many points as I could just because I knew that would [tick] George off and do certain things I knew would get him mad. But at the same time, I couldn't look at it that way because I wasn't winning that situation, anyway, which I didn't.
"I'm playing defense harder and just trying to please Woody as much as I can. That's what makes me feel good, because I know he appreciates that."
In the past, Smith might have internalized his frustrations after a turnover, halfheartedly giving chase on the fast break but really waiting for another offensive opportunity. This season, we've seen him make great defensive plays by combining his athleticism with good old fashioned hustle.
Now that Smith has added that dimension to his game, the Knicks can count on him to make difficult plays at both ends of the floor.
So when he loses the ball against the San Antonio Spurs, he doesn't sulk and wait to get the ball again. Instead, Smith takes off after the ball, catching Gary Neal from behind and rejecting him off the glass.
With the issues the Knicks are having defending the perimeter, that kind of effort is major. Jason Kidd is showing his age and Ronnie Brewer did not pan out as a defensive ace; New York is going to need Smith to shoulder that burden when it counts.
The Knicks won't get that kind of two-way intensity from Amar'e Stoudemire. Both players are essential to New York's playoff hopes, but Smith and his defense is more important to a championship run.