A tumultuous season just keeps getting more turbulent for the New York Knicks, who learned Monday that if they’re going to make a playoff run, they may have to do it without one of their best players.
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But with power forward Amar’e Stoudemire sidelined indefinitely by a bulging disc in his back, a lengthy playoff showing — an incredibly idealistic thought to begin with — should be the last thing on New York’s mind.
Just making the postseason will likely prove challenging enough.
Stoudemire left Saturday’s rout of the Detroit Pistons in the second half with back pain, but after the game, the 10th-year big man with a recent history of back problems described the issue as muscular — “It got a little tight, that’s all,” he assured reporters — and dismissed it as nothing to worry about.
An MRI on Monday afternoon revealed a condition that was much, much worse.
“You don’t wish that on any player, but especially Amar’e, who is a big part of what we do,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said before the Knicks’ 89-80 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. “All we can do is just hope that it’s not as serious as it may be and that he has a speedy recovery.”
Stoudemire, who is in Miami receiving a second opinion from a back specialist, is expected to undergo non-surgical treatment for the injury for now, but that could always change. It’s unknown exactly when Stoudemire may get back on the floor — Woodson wouldn’t even offer a guess at an earliest possible return date — but the coach’s tone when asked about a comeback was noticeably glum.
“He’s got to keep his head up, and if he has to have surgery, he’s got to rehab and come back,” Woodson said, speaking in a tone that seemed to suggest that we may have seen the last of Stoudemire this season. “He’s a young player, man. He’s got a lot of games still left in him. I just wish him nothing but the best.”
The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Stoudemire, who seemed to finally be finding his groove in the Knicks’ offense under Woodson, and the Knicks, who had won six of seven games since Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni.
Stoudemire averaged 17.7 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the floor under D’Antoni this season. Since Woodson’s unexpected promotion, Stoudemire’s scoring and rebounding numbers haven’t changed drastically — he averaged 16.9 points and 8.1 rebounds under Woodson — but he’s taking nearly four fewer shots from the field per game while shooting 57.9 percent from the floor.
And now it’s up to — gulp — Josh Harrellson and Jerome Jordan to fill in for the six-time All-Star.
“I feel good about our guys that are coming in off the bench,” an optimistic Woodson said, perhaps trying to convince himself that everything will be OK.
“I’ve felt great about that all year and especially since I took over as the coach. My thing is, from a coaching standpoint, those guys have got to be ready to come in and play. . . . As a coach, I’m just anxious to see how guys are going to step up and play.”
To make matters worse for the aching Knicks, point guard Jeremy Lin missed Monday’s game with a sore left knee and is day-to-day, and All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony aggravated a groin injury that forced him to miss the better part of eight games earlier this season.
Anthony, who scored 28 points and had 12 rebounds against Milwaukee, said his injury is not as bad as it was last time and that he may not even be required to miss time. Anthony played 35 minutes during Monday’s win — but given Stoudemire’s nonchalant dismissal of his own injury two days prior, it’s understandable why Knicks fans could be skeptical.
If there’s a bright side to New York’s recent injury bug, though — and it’s an awfully dim bright side — it’s that the Knicks this season have actually gotten by without their star players, and particularly without Stoudemire.
Stoudemire missed two games during the first week of the season with a sprained left ankle and four games in February as he mourned the death of his brother, and the Knicks went 5-1 in those contests. New York went 7-1 while Anthony was on the bench, four of those games overlapping with Stoudemire’s absence.
And if this season has taught us anything about the Knicks, it’s that they can never be counted out and that anyone can step up when his name is called.
The last time Stoudemire and Anthony were sidelined, their absence led to the emergence of Lin as the Knicks’ most effective starting point guard in years and Steve Novak as one of the league’s elite sharpshooters. And who would have predicted that Lin and Novak would be the ones to lead New York’s hoops renaissance?
But if Woodson is hoping for another miracle during Stoudemire’s indeterminate absence, he’s probably out of luck. Linsanity doesn’t strike twice, and there’s no reason to believe that Harrellson and James are due for their own unscripted moments in the spotlight.
If the Knicks are truly going to emerge as a playoff team, it’s going to be the team’s veteran stars, Anthony and Tyson Chandler, who get them there.
Anthony has been called everything from a ball hog to a locker-room cancer this season, and some credit him with masterminding D’Antoni’s ouster, but he’s still one of the elite scorers in the NBA. Chandler was added for his defense, and his championship pedigree was supposed to help get the struggling Knicks over the hump.
Now their skills are as valuable as ever, and if Chandler and Anthony aren’t up to the challenge, the Knicks are as good as done.
“It’s a fun situation to be in, to know that situations like this require me to step my game up a little bit more and take it up a notch,” Anthony said. “I love moments like this. Tonight was a game that I really wanted to go win, and we wanted to go win, and we did that. We responded very well tonight.”
Anthony and Chandler (13 points, nine rebounds) did their part in their first game without Stoudemire, but the Knicks shot just 35.1 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 23 times in the win. Winning games with those numbers is hardly a sustainable plan, so the prognosis for the remainder of the Knicks’ season is dicey at best if that level of play keeps up.
Eleven of the Knicks’ final 16 games will come against likely playoff teams, and just five of those 11 games will be played at home. Monday’s win gave the Knicks a 2½-game cushion on the Bucks for the eighth playoff spot in the East, but Milwaukee and New York still have one more matchup left this season, on April 11 in Milwaukee. And if the Bucks win, they’ll secure the tiebreaker should the teams finish the season with identical records.
Reaching the playoffs is certainly not an impossible goal for the 25-25 Knicks, but any promises that they will seem dubious with their $100 million forward on the bench and two more starters on the mend. And even if they manage to back their way into the postseason, a Stoudemire-less New York team is still an early exit waiting to happen.
“I don’t know,” a sullen Woodson said when asked whether Stoudemire could be ready for a playoff run. “Right now, we’ve just got to take it a game at a time, a practice at a time, a film session at a time. That’s what it’s all about right now, and guys that are in uniform have got to be ready to play.