- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- You could ask where in the heck this has been for the Knicks -- this kind of suffocating defensive effort and, more to the point, this version of Amare Stoudemire. But with the Knicks undergoing their umpteenth reboot in the past few years and just 54 hours removed their latest soul-deadening head-coach crash and burn, why torture yourself more? Why bother asking why?
Just take in the back-to-back thumpings the Knicks have put together -- first on Portland on Wednesday, and now Friday's 115-100 beatdown of Indiana, a team that began the night six games better than the Knicks in the win column. Then see if the impressive early returns in the three days since Mike Woodson took over as the Knicks' interim head coach last longer than Linsanity's eight-game run on Broadway did.
Because all of a sudden even Stoudemire looks alive.
And this Knicks team insists it has finally, genuinely been scared straight by the fact that it'd fallen to ninth place and out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, thanks to the six-game losing streak that led to Mike D'Antoni's resignation just before these two hope-reviving wins.
Stoudemire has in many ways been the most forgotten man in all the dramas and subplots swirling around the Knicks between D'Antoni's messy exit as head coach and Carmelo Anthony's uncharacteristic offensive struggles and the growing debate on whether Jeremy Lin was destined to de-evolve from a worldwide sensation to backup NBA point guard again faster than you can say "Baron Davis."
(Hit the pause button on that drama for now, too. The oft-injured Davis is hurt again. He left Friday's game in the first half with a strained hamstring.)
Lin isn't really what's been ailing the Knicks. Stoudemire and Anthony and the defense have been more to blame.
Under D'Antoni this season, Stoudemire and Anthony were averaging a combined 7.4 points per game below their career averages. Even worse, they were playing defense about as well as two subway turnstiles. And it was dragging down the rest of the team. Opponents went through them, over them and by them. The difference in the Knicks' defense when they were on the court and when the second team was playing was glaring. And Stoudemire's defense was even lousier than Anthony's -- which is saying something.
But now Woodson's in charge, preaching more "accountability" in every other sentence he utters. And all of a sudden, there was the Knicks defense rising up against the Pacers on Friday, just as it did when it held Portland to just 12 first-quarter points on Wednesday. And there was Stoudemire, right there with everyone else. Suddenly he was moving as if the floorboards beneath his feet were on fire. He was harassing the Pacers' David West and Tyler Hansbrough in the paint and trying to trap them way out on the wings; he smacked the ball out of Hansbrough's hands beneath the rim, blocked a shot, then blew by the Pacers at the other end of the floor for a dribble-drive basket and a dunk off a miss, which Stoudemire punctuated by doing a chin-up on the rim and then hanging there for a while.
Those two first-half hoops turned out to be his only two field goals on a night no Knicks starter played more than half the game. But the stats told none of the story. He looked nothing like the guy who's been insisting he was healthy, but nonetheless looked so creaky for much of this season he seemed to need an oil can for his joints and a chiropractor to crack his back during timeouts.
"Man, I feel great," Stoudemire said in the Knicks' upbeat locker room after he wolfed down a quick plate of spaghetti and meatballs, then dressed quickly for the flight that will take them to Indiana for Saturday's rematch against a Pacers team that might've made a mistake when Danny Granger pronounced this back-to-back series against the Knicks as "winnable games."
Both Stoudemire and Chandler acknowledged they'd heard what Granger said. And they also suggested was it was no accident the Knicks used the slight as motivation for a stunning first-quarter defensive effort that limited the Pacers to just six points the first 10 minutes of the game and just 14 overall in the quarter.
So wait ... now, on top of everything else, the Knicks aren't a soft team anymore, either? They're a group that plays with a chip on its shoulder, too?
"We have to do this whether someone makes some comments or not," Stoudemire insisted.
"This is the recipe for how this team should play," Tyson Chandler agreed.
Both Woodson and the players all say the new coach hasn't had time to change D'Antoni's offense much in the 72 hours since he was promoted from his assistant post, beyond adding a few new twists and tweaks.
But those three days were still enough time for a sign that read "Woodsanity" to flash on the Madison Square Garden scoreboard Friday night as the Garden crowd reveled in the Knicks' double-digit lead. And the newest name pun didn't escape Stoudemire's sight.
"I said to Jeremy [Lin], 'What is all this? This is getting out of control with all this Linsanity, Woodsanity, Knicksanity stuff,'" Stoudemire said with a laugh.
But the answer to Stoudemire's question is easy: All this "stuff" is who the Knicks were supposed to be.
"This is the most talented team I've ever had," said Woodson, who previously was the head coach of three playoff teams in Atlanta.
Neither Stoudemire nor Anthony nor Chandler played more than 26 minutes, because the Knicks led by 19 at halftime and then romped the rest of the way behind another strong effort from their bench. But when Chandler is a force in the paint and blocking as many shots (four) as he did Friday night and Anthony is tying him for the team lead in rebounds (seven), not just launching shots, and Stoudemire is moving nimbly and banging people in the paint like he did, too, the three of them finally look like they can live up to being one of the top two or three frontcourts in the NBA -- which was the expectation when they were put together just before the season began.
It hasn't turned out that way. And Stoudemire has been missing in action the most. His 17.7 point average is a career low.
But if Stoudemire keeps moving and playing like he did Friday, there won't be any more worries of how he'll perform now that he's no longer playing for D'Antoni, who coached him for most of his nine NBA seasons -- the last 1½ here in New York, and nearly five of his All-Star years in Phoenix before that.
The Knicks at least have a pulse again, even if it's been only two games. And Stoudemire finally looks alive, too.
"What do we have -- 22 games left?" Woodson asked.
"Time to make a playoff push," Stoudemire said.
If Amare keeps playing like he did Friday, Knicks won't have many more worries.