Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK – After Amar’e Stoudemire signed a five-year, $100 million contract last summer, he stood in front of Madison Square Garden and boldly proclaimed, “The Knicks are back.”
Ironically, it is now his own troubled back that may pave the way for the Knicks to get swept by the Boston Celtics in their first-round playoff series.
No NBA franchise has ever come back from 3-0 down, and that’s exactly where the Knicks find themselves after Friday’s 113-96 blowout loss at Madison Square Garden.
“There’s no way I’ll be 100 percent by Sunday,” Stoudemire said of Game 4 on Easter. “I knew tonight I wasn’t 100 percent but I also knew my teammates needed me out there. I got treatment. The training staff did a phenomenal job of treating me the last three days. But I wasn’t 100 percent to play.”
After tweaking his back during warm-ups before Game 2, a creaky, tentative Stoudemire managed just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting in Game 3 — the Knicks’ first home playoff game since 2004. He gave his press conference after Game 2 standing up and said he had difficulty putting his shoes and socks on in the days leading up to Game 3.
“Everybody know his situation,” said Carmelo Anthony, who managed just 15 points on 4-of-16 shooting after going for 42 and 17 in Game 2. “Everybody know he got a bad back. Just for him to come out here and give it a try, I respect that. He was out there for us. He played; he gave us what he can give us. Nobody was expecting him to come out here and be a superhero or anything like that. He gave us what he can do. I respect him for that.”
The Knicks played for a second straight game without point guard Chauncey Billups, who may be done for the season with a strained ligament in his left knee.
Without him the Knicks miss “Mr. Big Shot,” a former NBA champ and a veteran of the playoff wars.
“It’s the time of season that I live for, man, so it’s really tough,” Billups said before the game. “I’m just trying to do the best that I could do to get back on the floor, man, but it’s just not ready.”
This is surely not how the Knicks envisioned things unfolding when they signed Stoudemire last summer.
Not how they imagined it would turn out when they dealt nearly half their roster – Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and a 2014 draft pick – for Anthony and Billups at the trade deadline.
“You don’t want key players out of the playoffs if you can avoid that,” Knicks president Donnie Walsh said the other day at practice. “It is frustrating when you have guys that are out, but that’s the nature of the game. You play with what you got that’s available that night.”
On this night the Knicks were without one of their “Big Three” and a second played simply to give his team a mental lift. You can bet if this were a regular-season game Stoudemire would’ve been wearing a suit and standing somewhere instead of sitting on the bench.
“I was very ginger,” Stoudemire said. “Didn’t really want to draw any contact. Quick moves wasn’t quite there. Couldn’t make any sharp, quick moves. It bothered my elevation on my jump shots and also driving to the basket. Driving to the basket knowing I was going to create contact made it difficult for me to finish those plays.
“Just being out there on the court, just trying to be a vocal leader, I think that helped a tad bit.”
Knicks center Ronny Turiaf begged out of the end of Game 2 with a recurring knee injury, but here was Stoudemire giving it a shot when it was clear to everyone in the building he has trouble even walking without pain.
“It’s tough,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “The guy’s been on a bed for two days…his heart is in the right place. And he gave us everything he got. His body’s a little bit dead. But he’ll be ready to go on Sunday.”
Ready to go, but not 100 percent.
And without him at full speed – and likely Billups, altogether – it’s hard to imagine the Knicks not getting swept and being done with their season in time for Easter dinner.
“It’s been tough,” Stoudemire siad. “It’s been tough. I’ve been in this position before where we went down 3-0 in a series. I happened to win Game 4.
“I think it’s one game at a time from here on out. Stay focused and take it one game at a time.”
This is clearly not how Walsh, D’Antoni and Stoudemire imagined things might unfold when they landed Anthony and Billups to create their own “Big Three” to rival Miami Thrice and Boston’s quartet of stars.
They may never know what could have been had everyone been healthy.
After all, the Knicks were in position to win Games 1 and 2 and could’ve won either or both games in Boston.
Instead, they fumbled away both games down the stretch and are now left with a shell of their team.
Anthony is playing alongside an injured Stoudemire, Landry Fields, who is a shadow of his former self, and Jared Jeffries, who has trouble making a layup.
It’s hardly a lineup and a bench that strikes fear.
But Anthony says he won’t make excuses.
“It’s tough, man, knowing that Amar’e’s not 10 percent and Chauncey’s not 100 percent,” Anthony said. “We’re just trying to find our way on the fly right now. That’s a tough situation.
“That would be making excuses if I sat here and say they beat us because we’re not at 100 percent. I don’t want to use that as an excuse.”
He doesn’t have to. The situation speaks for itself.
**NBA.com notebook with notes and quotes.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.