Tuesday, May 1, 2012

State of the Garden: Tuesdays with Amar'e

I was all set to have a positive Game 2 recap for you guys today. YOUR New York Knicks didn't back down from the now even more heavily favored Miami Heat, but ultimately fell short in a 10-point loss. It seemed as if Miami was in semi- to full control almost the whole night, but the Bockers put together a spirited effort, legitimately challenging what many have forgotten to be the NBA's best team.

The Knicks lost their starting point guard and replaced him with two declining veterans who probably played their best ball in blue and orange to date. It lost its best individual defensive player and alllllmost made up for his absence with collective effort and hustle. And it fought through the weeds of a hostile environment, not from the fair weather attendees, but because of whistles that were still blown to the advantage of the home team.

It's too easy to hop on the bash train for the now infamous post-game extracurricular activities in which "Standing Tall and Talented" participated. Interestingly, it's also forgivable to do so, barking and admonishing Stoudemire for Kevin Brown-ing his way through a glass container that housed a fire extinguisher. But I'm not going to do that today.

See, it wasn't always like this.

Signed to a maximum salary contract in the summer of 2010, Stoudemire boldly declared that he would help restore a downtrodden team back to heights that the city deserved and that the league so desperately needed. Before he ever laced 'em up, he yelled through the walls of his introductory press conference, "The Knicks are back!"

Leading a squad bereft of the above-average talent a contender requires to even have a puncher's chance, Stoudemire averaged 25 points and 8 rebounds per game, shooting sweet percentages of 50 from the field and 80 from the stripe. He set New York's all-time record for consecutive 30-point games in a season. He started the All-Star game, the first Knick to do so since Patrick Ewing. By season's end, he had a dark horse MVP shot, the candidacy of which was undoubtedly propelled by nightly serenades from the Garden faithful.

Later that season, the Knicks gutted their roster to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. The throne that sat atop the mecca of basketball suddenly had a challenger. Anthony was a special talent that put ball in net and butts in seats with relative ease. He dripped a trail of swagger in his footsteps. But Amar'e came first, and he was still treated that way. Amidst all the hubbub of Melo's grand entrance in a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, it was Stoudemire who retained his place as the last player announced during team introductions. We weren't about to forget that it was Amar'e who took the plunge when The Straight Shot did his absolute best to blackball the team as a worthy free agent destination. As fans, we appreciated Stoudemire's admirable courtesy, as he willingly invited the chance to descend from "1" to "1A."

The fact that the 2nd-half version of the 2010-11 Knicks were a work in progress was blatantly obvious, with two superstars acknowledging that a full offseason was necessary to gel into a cohesive tandem. But the city's exuberance for the team's restored relevance was just as apparent, as New York squared off against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics, however, were already the thing that Knicks knew they weren't yet: a team. Boston dispatched of STAT and Melo in 4 games.

At first, it seemed like the extended offseason produced by the lockout would help Stoudemire, giving him more time to rehab the injured back. But it didn't turn out that way. It was a summer in which the workout-obsessed Stoudemire had to abide by doctor's orders to limit his physical movements. Those doctor's orders were a problem in and of itself, coming from men paid fully by Stoudemire (individual insurance or otherwise), because the lockout prevented him from using the well-equipped, highly-trained staff of the professional sports team that was withholding his paychecks. And not only was he prevented from developing the much-needed chemistry with Anthony to prepare for this season, he lacked the ability to play basketball at all.

When the lockout ended, the NBA unveiled the Amnesty Clause, one of its many shiny new toys within an improved Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Knicks used it on Chauncey Billups, freeing up the cap space to sign Tyson Chandler.

I would never detract from my statement that Chandler has been worth every penny, nor would I ever subscribe to the notion that the Knicks are a better team without Anthony. Anybody who says otherwise hasn't watched enough games or is sadly misinformed. But both of the new guys had stripped STAT off his opportunities to succeed. Melo dominates the ball, while Chandler takes up space down low and also needs to be involved in the pick-and-roll game to avoid being a sieve on offense. It was something that needed to be done, but Amar'e's shot repertoire was reduced, somewhat unfairly, to jumpers coming off of screens and one-on-one drives that resulted from broken plays or unsuccessful initial run-throughs. Couple that with the fact that Amar'e's back rehabilitation resulted in him getting in shape during games that counted, and we were seeing a different man.

And as if the doldrums on the hardwood weren't enough to emotionally break him, Stoudemire's older brother, Hazell, was killed in a car accident. So in a year where everybody and their mother questioned whether a basketball player lost his explosiveness, the loss of a family member had to have added to the weight that critics have placed on his shoulders.

Of course, our two-year captain soldiered on. In the wake of a coaching regime change at Two Penn Plaza, Stoudemire silenced (okay, fine, he just made their voices less audible) those who said he could and would never play defense. Maybe he had spent too much time on the shelf to fully regain his offensive prowess, but there was a little oomph in STAT's step on the end of the basketball court that had failed him for his whole career.

But soon enough, Stoudemire's troublesome back acted up again, forcing him out of action for several weeks. The back pages picked up their game, as Anthony and Co. didn't flinch without him. Many spoke of the matchup nightmare that Anthony provided as a power forward, the position that Amar'e had beasted just one short year ago.

The decline of Amar'e Stoudemire was not so swift that it hit us before we were ready to acknowledge its existence. The back injury that he suffered while attempting to dunk during warmups against Boston started a tortoise-like pace that has been consummated in Amar'e being branded as "The Fire Guy."

In many ways, Stoudemire and his embattled former coach, Mike D'Antoni, represent the same thing for a sports franchise that is just now climbing out of obscurity. D'Antoni, aided by former general manager Donnie Walsh, produced a brand of exciting basketball that provided a worthwhile break from previous Knick teams full of losers, malcontents, and wastes of space. But while his run-and-gun style took us from the basement to the lobby, we always knew we needed a better guy at the helm to take us to the penthouse suite. Similarly, Amar'e, great as he was, never did possess the basketball resume to be a Finals MVP, making the acquisition of bigger pieces more necessary to finish the puzzle. His presence was a healthy change from teams led by players best reserved for thirdfourth, and tenth options on actual playoff teams, but he was a deputy masquerading as a sheriff. With D'Antoni out and Anthony in, a new administration had begun its term.

All good things again came to an end last night, punctuated with Amar'e's flirtation with a defenseless fire extinguisher (Word is still out on whether the referees are describing the incident as a flagrant-2, in order to send LeBron James, who sources say was good friends with the inanimate object, to the free throw line.). It's been more than a decade since my fifteen favorite athletes on this earth have won a playoff game, and maybe I'll have to wait one more year. But while I let my immediate reaction to last night's events subside, albeit at a similar tortoise-like pace, I just wanted to say thanks, Amar'e.

I want to break your other hand, but I'm still a fan. Get well soon.


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