- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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First things first: Let's stop fooling ourselves into thinking Amar'e Stoudemire is coming back this season. He's not!
Not with the same old bad knee. Not with him scheduled to be out six to eight weeks after some form of arthroscopic surgery called a "debridement procedure." Not with his history of knee issues.
Stoudemire is gone, and with him goes whatever reprieve the battered-and-bruised Carmelo Anthony was scheduled to receive. Or does it?
Because now more than ever, it's necessary to protect Melo, their $85 million man, who sat out the past week with a sore knee of his own.
"Amar'e is a huge loss for us, there's no doubt about that," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said recently. "No matter how long it is, we all feel bad for him because we know how hard he's worked. But we also have to move forward and continue to look for ways to win while getting ourselves ready for the playoffs. Obviously, Melo is key to all of that. Hopefully, nothing else will happen with him."
Let us pray.
When the Knicks take on the Warriors on Monday night, the good news is that Melo will probably be on the court with them. The bad news, aside from Amare's injury, is that they'll face Stephen Curry, who had a 54-point explosion Feb. 27 vs. the Knicks.
Curry shot 18-of-28 from the field that night, 11-of-13 from 3-point range, boogeying on the Knicks in such a way that it not only conjured memories of Madison Square Garden performances by Michael Jordan or Bernard King, it actually had folks like myself surmising that it may have been the greatest Garden gem we ever witnessed.
The thing is, Melo scored 35 points that night. Tyson Chandler grabbed 28 rebounds. Stoudemire had 14 points and J.R. Smith made sure to chip in 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field. And yet it still took late-game heroics, plus some inconsistent play down the stretch from the Warriors, for the Knicks to escape with a 109-105 victory on their home floor.
"There was nothing we could do against (Curry)," Melo would say that night.
Knicks fans are hoping the Knicks won't find themselves saying such things during the stretch run.
Yet here we are with just 22 games left in the regular season and Stoudemire is out, Melo is just returning and the Knicks' definition of relief has arrived in the form of aging veteran Kenyon Martin -- primarily because he's a healthy big body.
The Knicks may have the league's second-leading scorer in Melo (28.2 ppg), but they're more hobbled than ever before. Jason Kidd is trying to find his groove. Same with Iman Shumpert. So the Knicks can ill afford to leave their fortunes solely on Anthony's shoulders.
"Melo is incredibly important to this team," Woodson has explained to me many times. "It's no secret. We essentially go where he takes us. But that doesn't mean I don't have faith in the rest of our guys. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I truly believe when we're clicking all cylinders, we can compete with anybody in this league.
"We want to win the Atlantic Division crown first. We want to get out of the first round. And we want to compete for a championship. Our goals haven't changed."
Woodson believes that way because Melo is still able to play. So for him to continue feeling that way, he'll have to ensure that Melo stays healthy, no matter what it takes.
Diminished minutes. Fewer responsibilities. Missed games.
Whatever it takes.
Never mind that Woodson was quoted the other saying Chris Copeland "can score the basketball." Never mind that Smith has averaged better than 25 points per game over the last three outings.
All of it is irrelevant if Raymond Felton can't orchestrate, if Chandler can't capitalize, if all Martin can provide is defense and if Melo doesn't have help.
But above all else, "I've got to be healthy," Melo told me recently. "There's no getting around that. When it's time, I've got to be ready."
Battered and bruised isn't being ready. It's simply surviving.
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com