Thursday December 16th, 2010

NEW YORK -- The look on Amar'e Stoudemire's face was unmistakable, that blank how-did-I-miss-that stare that only appears when you rim off a gimme. For four quarters, the Celtics and Knicks traded haymakers, a 48-minute exchange Kevin Garnett branded "a good backyard scuffle." And, in the waning moments, Stoudemire was given an opening to land the knockout blow. With the game tied and 15 seconds on the clock, Stoudemire found himself with the ball in the lane, four feet from the rim and only the 6-foot-7 Paul Pierce standing in his way. He turned, elevated and released.

And missed.

The rest, as they say, is history. On the next possession, Paul Pierce iced the game for Boston with a jumper that cut through the net with just 0.4 on the clock, the same go-right, step back jump shot the Knicks coaches warned their players to be mindful of before the game. Stoudemire tacked on a double dose of drama to the ending when he buried a 26-foot bomb, only to have it taken off the board after a quick replay showed him releasing it after time expired.

As the Celtics celebrated their 118-116 win, Knicks players slumped their shoulders, despondent. But should they be? They had just stood toe-to-toe with Boston -- an early season title favorite and winners of 11 straight now -- and came within a stunning Stoudemire miss and a fraction of a second from winning. Indeed, lost in the constant Carmelo Anthony watch in Manhattan is one inescapable fact: This Knicks team is already pretty good.

It all starts with Stoudemire. His 39-point outburst against Boston was his ninth straight 30-plus point effort, a franchise record that seems to have no end in sight. Stoudemire's assaults on the rim are what make SportsCenter but it's the maturation of his game that is most impressive. His scoring numbers are at a career high, but so are his assists. He is a terror in the paint, but he has grown so comfortable with his outside shot that he is averaging career highs in attempts from 10-15 feet (2.3) and 16-23 feet (4.3). The Celtics dispatched waves of defenders at Stoudemire on Wednesday, each with little effect.

Said Paul Pierce, "Amar'e was hitting tough shots over [us] all night."

And Stoudemire has had plenty of help. The words "Wilson Chandler" and "trade" shared many sentences in the first month of the season. That was then. Now, Chandler is an indispensable starter, a versatile defender who has become a nightmare for opponents to match up with.

There is Danilo Gallinari, whose confidence grows by the day. Or the half. Gallinari was scoreless in the first half against Boston. He finished with 20.

There is Landry Fields, the Knicks second-round draft steal who has blended seamlessly into coach Mike D'Antoni's system and never takes off a play. There is Ronny Turiaf, whose energy the Knicks seem to feed off.

And then there is Raymond Felton, the portly point guard who was deemed expendable by Charlotte and snatched up in the Knicks post-LeBron spending spree. Unshackled from Larry Brown's controlling hand, Felton has thrived. He ranks third among NBA guards in double-doubles, a number that swelled to 12 after Felton's 26-point, 14-assist output.

On a team that has long lacked confidence, Felton oozes it out of his pores. Stoudemire may be the face of these Knicks, but Felton is its voice.

"Real basketball players and people who understand the game know we have a good team and we can play with anybody when we play our game," Felton said. "We play the same teams everyone else plays and I feel this team can play with anyone in this league."

It's an opinion that's hard to argue with. Sure, the Knicks inflated their record by beating up on the likes of Detroit, New Jersey, Minnesota and Washington. But they outplayed Denver on Sunday and very nearly tripped up Boston. Miami comes to town Friday and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who think the white-hot Heat are going to roll.

These Knicks, these Carmelo-less Knicks, are for real. They are young, hungry and have a winning-starved fan base emphatically behind them. The team has suddenly given the city a reason to watch. As two middle-aged men headed toward the exits Wednesday, the emotion was palpable in their voice.

"Great game," one said.

"Great?" said the other. "That was the best game I've seen in my life."

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