- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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The temptation is there!
The temptation to believe that the Knicks are done. That Carmelo Anthony is done. That Melo's exodus to Los Angeles this summer is inevitable, all because the Knicks are not good enough to compete for an NBA championship.
But something strange has occurred in the past two games against Atlanta and Houston: Andrea Bargnani has decided to show up. A double-double vs. the Hawks, followed by 24 points against the Rockets, accentuated with an impressive defensive performance on Dwight Howard, suddenly has everyone a bit more optimistic.
"We've seen some glimpses of it since he's been here," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said Friday. "A few games ago, [Bargnani] had five blocked shots. He's starting to pick it up. He played Howard as well as I've seen anybody play Howard since Howard has been in this league.
"All bigs in our league struggle in pick-and-roll defense. There's just not a lot of low-post guys who can dominate the block. You don't see that on a night-in, night-out basis in our league. The fact that we saw Bargnani do what he did against [Howard], now we probably won't have to double as much and can stay out on shooters on the perimeters, which is very good for us because it'll only improve our defense."
Before anyone ventures too far into fantasy land, renewing season-ticket packages to ensure prime seating for an NBA Finals, thinking Bargnani is to Melo what Dwyane Wade is to LeBron James, let's pump the brakes for a second.
The Knicks are 3-5. Already, there's a loss on the books to the Charlotte Bobcats. Melo, your resident star, has already declared he's opting out at the end of the season, and Bargnani, averaging just four rebounds per game, is still considered too soft to single-handedly compel Melo to want to stay and save Gotham City.
J.R. Smith needs to shoot better than 25 percent from the field instead of getting fined $25,000 for juvenile tweeting. Iman Shumpert, needing to punctuate his effort and defensive tenacity with better shooting and playmaking ability, "simply has to continue to play and stop worrying about all these trade rumors he's involved in, because that's part of this business," coach Woodson explained.
As each game passes, Stoudemire's knees continue to make one thing clear: It is time for him to retire. The only questions remaining are whether he'll reach that conclusion himself, and, if so, when. And can divine intervention -- or some prodding from chairman James Dolan -- expedite the process so the Knicks could get his numbers off their books and pursue another star to play with Melo for years to come?
Questions abound. But Bargnani has provided some answers.
Second on the team in scoring behind Melo, averaging 15 points per game on 52 percent shooting, and 44 percent from 3-point range, consider that Bargnani is replacing Marcus Camby and Steve Novak and there's really nothing to say to that but "Thank God!"
Not only is Bargnani a 7-footer who can shoot, and is clearly capable of providing more consistency in that department than anyone else, but imagine the possibilities if J.R. finds his groove, if Tyson Chandler comes back healthy and if assistance is provided from anyone else on that front line like a Kenyon Martin or a Metta World Peace.
"We can do some things," Melo has said repeatedly. "We've got potential. We just have to play the games."
Winning helps, too.
There's another game Saturday night versus Atlanta. The Knicks visit the Pistons on Tuesday. There's a likely loss at Madison Square Garden against Indiana on Wednesday, followed up by a four-game road swing through Washington, Portland, L.A. (Clippers) and Denver.
Conceivably, the Knicks should win four of their next six games, putting them at .500 ball.
"It's early," Woodson deadpanned. "We just need to continue to work and get better. The rest will take care of itself."
In theory, Woodson is correct. But in reality, there are more substantive matters.
Wins equal productivity. That translates into hope. And when your star (Melo) has displayed enthusiasm toward impending free agency -- which means potentially leaving -- the Knicks' default position is to look around and entertain thoughts about what will entice him to stay.
Bargnani is far from the answer, but his productivity is a start. Now, if he keeps it up and others decide to join in, maybe we'll begin to have real conversations about "potential" and the New York Knicks.
The kind that are warranted, that is!
Bargnani has come up big for 'Bockers, but bottom line is Knicks have to win!