Wednesday January 12th, 2011

I watched New York beat the Pacers, scorch the league-leading Spurs and then annihilate the Suns. And with each win, all I could think was: How could I have been so wrong about the Knicks?

What could I have been thinking to pick them behind the Carmelo-obsessed (and momentarily 10-27) Nets? The Knicks are a solid No. 6 in the East, they've won 19 of 26 (including 10 of 14 on the road) and they are a team I had dismissed as too thin to beat the Spurs, Suns and Blazers in the absence of Danilo Gallinari, who could be sidelined another two weeks by a sprained left knee.

"Amar'e Stoudemire is the league MVP right now, it's not even close," an advance scout told me recently. "But anybody who thought he'd be this good is full of it. Nobody saw this coming.''

My preseason prediction was looking sharp when the Knicks opened 3-8 and stories were being written about the potential firing of coach Mike D'Antoni. At that time, they weren't yet spacing out to the perimeter around Stoudemire, pinching him against extra defenders and forcing turnovers out of him. Then, D'Antoni shortened his rotation, point guard Raymond Felton -- so hungry to prove himself -- stopped over-dribbling and started moving the ball, the paint opened like the Red Sea for Stoudemire and the Knicks became legitimate.

Now, everything could be changing again, depending on whether Carmelo Anthony is dealt by Denver to the Nets, Knicks or potentially the Rockets. The Nets are hoping Carmelo will help them seize ownership of the New York market by the time they move to their new Brooklyn arena in 2012. If the Nets swipe the NBA's biggest available star away from their rivals, will the Knicks be viewed so promisingly? The Knicks need one or two more stars around Stoudemire, who himself is viewed as such a long-term injury risk that neither Phoenix nor any other franchise besides New York was willing to invest max money in him last summer in free agency.

The value of the Knicks' players is increasing as their wins pile up, which could yet enable them to compete on the trading market for Anthony. Early this season I was critical of Knicks president Donnie Walsh for not being in the running to sign LeBron James. Walsh's way is to wait, to show patience while proceeding with caution, and while that style didn't help with LeBron, it may yet succeed in landing Carmelo. Multiple reports Wednesday morning claimed Stoudemire texted Anthony in hopes of luring him to New York, and that the Knicks are planning to begin negotiations with the Nuggets, though specific players were not named.

In the meantime, Walsh made the shrewdest pick in the draft to take Landry Fields at No. 39, he also spent wisely on Felton, and the early returns on Stoudemire have been outstanding.

"[Amar'e's] probably the best I've ever seen," D'Antoni said when asked to rate the All-Star forward as a leader. "Where we were, what he has done -- we could not ask for anything better. It's unbelievable what he's done from the very first day that he walked into New York with the media, with the fans. He has a swagger and he can back it up. We had a tough period to start with and he didn't waver and his voice was strong, and his commitment to the team and with practice has been great."

At 28, Stoudemire is the oldest member of the Knicks' current core, and D'Antoni will try to extend the rotation by developing Bill Walker and Shawne Williams (54.2 percent from the three-point line) over the months ahead. Gallinari, Fields and Wilson Chandler all have upside, and the Knicks could have cap space (pending the rules of the next bargaining agreement) after the season. But for now I couldn't have been more wrong about the Knicks.

The resilient Jazz are competing with Oklahoma City for the Northwest title and opening-round home court, and one reason is the return of Raja Bell. The 34-year-old shooting guard played a combined 73 games over the previous two years with Phoenix, Charlotte and Golden State, but this season the defense-first Bell is averaging 29.8 minutes in 34 games with Utah while reuniting with coach Jerry Sloan.

"We put stock in some of the same stuff," Bell said. "I enjoyed my first time here a lot, and it's been pretty good the second time around too.''

The 6-5 Bell was trying to find his place in the league when he joined the Jazz as a 27-year-old in 2003-04, Utah's first season without John Stockton and Karl Malone.

"We were young and there was a lot of opportunities to share in the responsibility offensively, which I hadn't got a chance to do anywhere," Bell said. "As long as I busted my butt on defense, Jerry let me do whatever I wanted on offense within the scheme of whatever we were doing. I appreciated it, because if it wasn't for those two years [with the Jazz], I probably would have been one of those guys who played for minimum contracts my whole career."

After averaging 12.3 points and converting 40.3 percent from the three-point line for Utah in 2004-05, Bell affirmed his reputation as a perimeter defender and shooter over the next three years with the contending Suns around Steve Nash and Stoudemire. After moving around the league, he has returned to this comfortable setting to contribute to the NBA's No. 7 field-goal defense.

Sharing the backcourt with the 6-3 Deron Williams -- a strong threat in the post -- has reduced the wear on Bell. Williams is often defended by the shooting guard, which leaves the point guard to deal with Bell.

"It's cool with me," Bell said. "I love the smaller guy. It's like, Come over here, buddy."

The slumping Pacers remain the No. 7 seed in the East despite losing 13 of their last 19 games, including eight straight on the road before Tuesday's win in Philadelphia. Coach Jim O'Brien has replaced Josh McRoberts with Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, and center Roy Hibbert hasn't played a strong game since November.

The least of the Pacers' problems is the play of small forward Danny Granger, and yet they're going to need him to escape this bad run. He came through with a team-leading 27 points Tuesday in a 111-103 win at Philadelphia.

Granger leads the Pacers with 21 points per game while serving as the No. 2 rebounder (5.7) and shot-blocker (0.97) in their daily rotation. He also helped Indiana emerge as the NBA's No. 4 team in field-goal defense (opponents are averaging 43.4 percent from the floor) by showing leadership at that end of the floor following his summer with USA Basketball's FIBA World Championship team. He has become more than a one-dimensional scorer.

"I was put in the situation when we overhauled the franchise and everybody left because we cleaned out the team after the brawl," he said earlier this season. "I was put in the position where I had to score 25 points and carry that load because we weren't there as a team. Now we have Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert -- guys who have really come along and they're ready to carry a lot of the load. I'm able to concentrate more on defense, although I still want to score."

Granger isn't the problem, but he is the answer. Over the next few weeks, he must find some way to galvanize Hibbert, second-year point guard Darren Collison (who flashed his potential with 21 points and 13 rebounds against the 76ers) and the other Pacers as they try to make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

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