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NEW YORK -- Perhaps the NBA should go ahead and change the Player of the Week to the Amare Stoudemire Award.
Because if the New York Knicks' big guy keeps doing what he did Monday night, he very well could win that accolade for the third time in as many weeks.
"He has that ability to rise to the occasion, and there's no reason he can't continue this," coach Mike D'Antoni said Monday night after Stoudemire made it at least 30 points in five straight games, dropping 12 of his 34 on the Minnesota Timberwolves in the fourth quarter of a 121-114 victory that gave the Knicks 10 wins in their past 11 games.
The Knicks stayed just one game behind the mighty Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference -- something no Knicks fan, player or executive could ever have imagined back in training camp, or even three weeks ago when the Knicks were in the latter stages of a six-game losing streak. That skid threatened to relegate them to yet another season of irrelevance in the city where they've been ignored for the better part of the past decade.
|Amare Stoudemire is averaging 34.2 points in the past five games -- all Knicks victories.|
Instead, they are off to the best start to a season since 2000-01 (the last season in which they won a playoff game) when they won 14 of their first 22 games.
Also, this is the latest the Knicks (13-9) have been four games above .500 since the end of that 2000-01 season.
"We have it going right now. We just have to keep it going," Raymond Felton (18 points, 11 assists) said. "We're playing great basketball, team basketball. We have to not be complacent and keep it rolling."
A reality check is in order, however, because of the strength -- or lack thereof -- of the schedule the Knicks have played. They have not yet faced the Heat or the Magic, and they've played against only two of the top eight teams in the West.
The schedule is going to take a sharp turn in a more difficult direction soon: The Knicks finish December with seven of their final eight games against probable playoff teams, then head into a January in which they'll open against the surprising Indiana Pacers and then play 10 consecutive games against opponents from the West -- seven of which will be on the road.
"We started out 3-8. That's the biggest factor; we started sort of slow so you have to make it up," D'Antoni said. "But the schedule is what it is, and we'll have some hard teams coming in, but they should be good measuring sticks. Right now we're playing very well, and there's no reason we can't continue that."
Playing well is a relative term, and there's no way anyone could say the Knicks were playing well in the early stages of this one. At one point Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic were all 4-for-4 from the field, and the Wolves were shooting an astonishing 93.3 percent as they made 14 of their first 15 shots.
But that came in a first quarter in which the Knicks trailed just 36-32 when the period ended, and a 31-18 Knicks advantage in the third quarter turned this game around.
Then came the fourth, when the Knicks were able to get the ball into Stoudemire's hands practically any time they wished, and he kept delivering. (It also cannot go unmentioned that D'Antoni used former 11th man Shawne Williams for the entire fourth quarter for the second consecutive game, getting five of his 13 points, including a clutch 3-pointer, out of the player who beat out Patrick Ewing Jr. for the final roster spot.)
Stoudemire's point totals in the past five games read 34, 31, 34, 35 and 37, and the Knicks have won all five. They have a realistic chance to stretch that streak to seven with upcoming games against Toronto and Washington before Carmelo Anthony visits his future home (or so Knicks fans would hope) for a Sunday afternoon matinee against Denver to begin the stretch of a much tougher schedule.
"You can see they're much more comfortable in their system, they're more confident in what they're doing out there, their shooters are shooting the ball a lot better than they were earlier in the year," said Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis, whose team came back from a 21-point deficit to defeat the Knicks last month behind a 31-point, 31-rebound performance from Love.
This time, Love had 33 points and 15 rebounds but missed eight of his final 11 attempts.
"When they're knocking down outside shots, and have somebody who can get on a roll like Stoudemire can, and who can create shots for himself when he does receive a pass, it puts a lot of pressure on defenses," Rambis said. "We told our guys that part of our defense was going to have to be executing our offense real well to put some pressure on them to have to defend, too."
That worked for Minnesota in the first quarter and for much of the second, but the Timberwolves couldn't keep pace with the Knicks in the third or fourth periods.
"They're confident, they're shooting the ball well, they're playing the way they want to play within their system. I see them getting better," Rambis said.
Chris Sheridan is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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