- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- At some seminal point in these playoffs -- maybe a Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers, or a Game 3 against the Miami Heat -- New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson will face his bench and see Amar'e Stoudemire looking a little glum, even a bit betrayed, and realize his $100 million man has only played a few minutes, if any at all.
Woodson will reveal something about himself in that moment. He'll either feel obliged to call Stoudemire's number and include the star who helped make the Knicks matter again, or he'll turn a cold shoulder and let the band play on.
Of course, there's a third possibility in play, too, the one where Woodson summons Stoudemire because his presence actually gives the Knicks their best chance to win. That's the ideal scenario for player and coach. So at practice Thursday, when asked if he'd talked to Stoudemire in order to manage his expectations for his latest re-entry, scheduled for Saturday night's Game 3 in Indianapolis, Woodson called the query "an interesting question."
In fact, how Woodson handles Stoudemire from here to the Knicks' elimination, or from here to the Knicks' parade, represents the most interesting New York, New York question of all.
"We've talked a little bit about that," Woodson said. "We talked about it way back when he had the [knee] surgery [in March], what we expected from him based on him coming back."
This was after the debridement performed on Stoudemire's right knee that kept him out for two months -- not to be confused with the debridement performed on his left knee that kept him out of the first two months of the year.
"I thought maybe we might've pushed him too much early on," Woodson said of Stoudemire's first return in January, "and so we've got to be really cautious this time with him, and just make sure we're doing the right things with him."
Sure, Woodson wants to do the right things with Stoudemire, just as any responsible, right-minded coach would. But Woodson's greater calling here is to do the right things with his team, and if that means Stoudemire shouldn't play a second more than Quentin Richardson, Marcus Camby, and James White -- the most likely DNPs in your local box score -- then that's what it means.
Asked if Stoudemire was receptive to his thoughts about minutes, or lack thereof, Woodson said, "Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. He has no choice."
It sounded good. Woodson is the coach, and so far with the Knicks he's been a pretty damn good one. He's 78-41 since taking over for Mike D'Antoni, playoffs included. He's been a bigger upgrade over D'Antoni than Jeff Van Gundy was over Don Nelson back in the day.
Woodson has generally demanded accountability from his players on both sides of the ball, and has even tried to make a pro's pro out of J.R. Smith, criticizing his attire and demeanor then and threatening to reduce his minutes now. But the coach has gone soft on Stoudemire before. When Amar'e was done picking that losing fight with a fire extinguisher case in the middle of last year's first-round series with Miami, Woodson rolled over and played dead.
"I'm going to show him all the love and support I can give him," he said at the time.
Hey, shattered fire extinguisher case or no shattered fire extinguisher case, it's easy to like Stoudemire. For one, he's a relentless worker. And he was a free agent who embraced the Knicks when no other notable member of the Class of 2010 would. Stoudemire changed the culture of the franchise, making the Garden a destination for Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and the rest. The fans will forever adore him for that.
Only a second-round series with Indiana, or a conference final with Miami or Chicago, is no time to consider any such sentiment. "I'm thinking somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes," Woodson said of Stoudemire's probable floor time Saturday night.
And I'm thinking that would be between 10 and 15 minutes too many if Anthony, Chandler and Kenyon Martin don't need any more help with Indiana's size in Game 3 than they did in Game 2.
Stoudemire is a power forward, suddenly Melo's best position. Chandler appears to be getting healthier by the possession, and, unlike Stoudemire, remains one of the league's premier defenders.
Martin, the high-energy guy playing as if he's back in his New Jersey Nets prime? "We would've been totally lost had we not picked up Kenyon [in February]," Woodson said. "He basically saved us." So whose minutes are cut for the sake of Stoudemire, the rusty big with two bum knees?
"We can really use him right now," Chandler maintained. "We're playing against a big team, big lineups. It's a great opportunity for him to be out there. He'll give us scoring presence on the blocks, so we can really use him right now, and he's been looking good so far."
Stoudemire did look good Thursday in the portion of practice open to the news media. He eagerly sought out contact, and made some power moves in the post during a four-on-four, full-court scrimmage with fellow reserves the likes of Camby, Richardson and Chris Copeland. Wearing his trademark goggles, Stoudemire was his standard picture of athletic grace, defined by a supermodel's waistline and a superhero's percentage of body fat tucked somewhere on his 6-foot-11 frame. He ran a few sprints after his workout, baseline to baseline, and then announced he felt "in great shape as far as the amount of time I'm going to play."
Stoudemire all but admitted he was rushing back too soon, taking the opposite approach of one Derrick Rose. "I don't have time to find my rhythm," he said, adding that he expected to effectively play his way into shape as the postseason unfolded.
"It means everything to be able to contribute and contend for a title," Stoudemire said. "Obviously my teammates know what I can bring to the table, what I've been doing my entire career, and to be here in the postseason would be definitely helpful to this team.
"I should be able to play at a high level."
But can he really play at that high level against the Pacers? Coming off yet another surgery? Without having appeared in a game since March 7?
Surrounded by cameras and microphones, Anthony, team leader, gave a lukewarm response to the notion that Stoudemire might be of some assistance in Game 3. Melo didn't say anything remotely derogatory about his teammate; in fact, he didn't say anything other than he was unaware of Stoudemire's status and that his backup power forward was "just trying to gradually get himself back going ... He's one of our, he's one of our guys. If he can help us, which we know he can, he can do that."
If you'd been around enough athletes and coaches long enough, you could hear in Anthony's voice a Knick who shared the same concerns about Stoudemire's return as some season-ticket holders did.
Once upon a time, after suffering a broken wrist in December 1997, Patrick Ewing returned to a second-round series against Indiana with some of the same "Are we better off without him?" questions raised by the fan base. Ewing shot 20-for-56 from the field in four games, three of them losses, and the Knicks went down in five.
Amar'e Stoudemire isn't Patrick Ewing, not even close, and the records say the 2012-13 Knicks were 16-13 with him and 38-15 without him, not counting their first playoff series victory since 2000. If Woodson believes Stoudemire can help as a pinch hitter, or a situational lefty out of the pen, he should by all means go to him.
But if his heart of hearts tells him that Stoudemire is too far gone, and that he can't mess with his frontcourt rotation of Anthony, Chandler and Martin, the coach of the Knicks had better be tough enough to take one for the team.
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