NEW YORK – Late in the third quarter on Tuesday, Amar’e Stoudemire caught a pass from J.R. Smith on the baseline, rose and posterized the Blazers’ Victor Claver.
It was the kind of highlight Knicks fans have been anticipating for two months. And the night was a huge step forward for Stoudemire, who received a huge ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd when he entered the game with 3:31 to go in the first period.
“I almost shed a tear when I walked out on the court with the standing ovation,” Stoudemire said afterward. “It was a phenomenal feeling. It was great to see the fans were patient for me.”
They’re going to have to be a little more patient. About 10 seconds after Stoudemire’s third-quarter dunk, Nicolas Batum ran a pick-and-roll with Jared Jeffries, and when Jeffries rolled and caught Batum’s pass on the left block, Stoudemire was standing at the opposite elbow. By the time he rotated over, Jeffries was laying the ball in the basket.
It was the kind of defensive breakdown Knicks fans have been fearing for two months. And it wasn’t the only one Stoudemire had in his 2012-13 debut.
Early in the second quarter, Stoudemire stood frozen at the foul line as J.J. Hickson strolled behind him for an alley-oop dunk. Midway through the third, Stoudemire got faked out by LaMarcus Aldridge, ran away from the man with the ball, and opened a huge lane for Aldridge to get to the basket.
Stoudemire shot just 3-for-8 on Tuesday and grabbed just one rebound in 17 minutes. But missed shots are nothing to worry about. And we obviously can’t expect Stoudemire to be sharp on either end of the floor in his first non-preseason game in almost eight months. But defensive breakdowns are common with the Knicks’ highest-paid player whether he’s healthy or not.
More important, defensive breakdowns have been too common with the Knicks for over a month now.
Every time Knicks coach Mike Woodson was asked something about his team’s offense after Tuesday’s 105-100 loss, he made it clear that offense wasn’t the issue. While 105 points may not seem like a major defensive debacle, this was a slow-paced game, with the Blazers tallying just 90 possessions. And the defense was just as bad with Stoudemire on the bench (68 points allowed on 59 possessions) as it was with him on the floor (37 on 31).
“Forget the offense,” Woodson said. “We scored enough points. Defensively, we’re just not where we were early in the year, and we’ve got to get back to that.”
Getting back to the way the Knicks defended in the first few weeks of the season (they ranked fourth defensively through Nov. 20) or the way they defended last season (they ranked fifth in 2011-12) will be more difficult with Stoudemire now in the mix. He’s a notoriously bad defender and he’s not at 100 percent.
But Woodson seems determined to make Stoudemire his project for the next few months. After each defensive breakdown on Tuesday, the coach called Stoudemire over to tell him where he went wrong.
“I expected that was going to happen,” Woodson said of Stoudemire’s defensive miscues. “So I’ve got to help him. I’ve got to let him know. We’ll show him on film tomorrow, and hopefully he’ll learn from it. And we’ll build on it day by day.”
Determining whether Stoudemire can co-exist offensively with Anthony and/or Tyson Chandler can wait for another day and more data. Even with a rusty Stoudemire, the Knicks were plenty good enough on that end of the floor against the Blazers. And even though Jason Kidd cooled off and Anthony missed six games, they still had the No. 8 offense in December. But they’ve lost five of their last eight games because they can’t get stops consistently.
“We’re really getting away from our principles right now and second-guessing ourselves,” Chandler said. “We’ve just got to get back to sticking with what we’ve had success with.”