Tuesday March 22nd, 2011

NEW YORK -- It had all the hallmarks of a heavyweight fight, one complete with blood (courtesy of Ray Allen, Troy Murphy and Carmelo Anthony), hard falls (Allen) and enough animosity to fuel 48 grueling minutes. There's no love lost between Boston and New York, no concern for the well being of the other. That's good, too. The NBA needs rivalries. Now if only the Knicks could make it a real one.

Certainly, Boston's 96-86 win on Monday was closer than the score indicates. The Knicks were frighteningly efficient in the first half, offering a teasing glimpse of just how good this star-studded core could be. Anthony pumped in 17 points and Amar'e Stoudemire chipped in 11 of his own. The Knicks connected on 48.7 percent of their shots while limiting the Celtics to a paltry 35 percent from the floor. They built a 51-37 halftime lead and cruised into the locker room with a newfound swagger.

That swagger vanished quickly, however, drained by Boston's steely resolve and New York's painfully predictable offense. The Celtics slashed into the Knicks' lead in the third quarter and capped off a double-digit comeback with a 33-17 fourth-quarter run. It's true, defense has always been an issue for Mike D'Antoni's teams -- "they don't play any," deadpanned a scout -- but it's the Knicks' offense that is becoming a growing cause for concern. For the second time in the last three games New York scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, the end result of a style of play that has become increasingly predictable. The offense stalls and the ball invariably winds up in the hands of Stoudemire or Anthony, who drive straight into the teeth of smirking defenses. The ballyhooed duo went a combined 0-5 in the fourth quarter Monday, a dismal ending to a night that began with such promise.

"We just have a lot of work to do," D'Antoni said. "This is a work in progress and we have a month to figure this out."

It's the right sentiment, however unrealistic. It took Miami half a summer, a full training camp and a month into the season to develop a rhythm with its Big Three, an identity they have been playing hide-and-seek with regularly over the last few months. The Knicks don't have that kind of time, not with just a handful of real practice days and Philadelphia surging ahead of them in the standings. It's a cold reality New York has at least tacitly acknowledged, with D'Antoni and GM Donnie Walsh ramping up the rhetoric about the long-term impact of the Anthony deal and Anthony himself declaring the team may not get on the same page before the end of the year.

But whether it's this season or next, the Knicks won't climb to a Boston-like level without sacrifice, without getting the kind of individual concessions from Stoudemire and Anthony that Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce made when they agreed to join forces in 2007.

"At the end of the day, they wanted it to work," Doc Rivers said. "You hear it a lot but I don't know if everyone means it. Just look at the shot attempts from the year before to that year. They were cut in half. And you didn't hear them complain about it. You could truly see they could not care less."

Stoudemire and Anthony seem to still care about numbers, with neither truly comfortable yet deferring to the other. The ball sticks to their hands in the half court and rarely leaves them unless it is headed for the rim. Against Boston, Anthony finished with three assists. Stoudemire, with one.

"We have to make sure we understand that the offense works," Stoudemire said. "We have to keep it going because the offense allows guys like Landry [Fields] and Shawne Williams to get it going and we need those players to play with confidence."

Stoudemire understands D'Antoni's offense, believes in it. He bought into it over eight years in Phoenix and still trusts in it now. What he doesn't yet understand is how to play with a superstar whose purpose on the floor isn't about finding ways to make him better. An All-Star resumé is about the only thing Anthony and Steve Nash share. Likewise, Anthony must adjust to basketball life without the ball being constantly funneled in his direction.

They can do it. Rivers thinks they will. He has watched with amusement at the scrutiny surrounding the Knicks the last few weeks and scratches his head at the layers of criticism. "Overreacting, as usual," Rivers said. And maybe he is right. But the Knicks are now 7-9 since acquiring Anthony and lack any kind of consistency. Until Stoudemire and Anthony get comfortable with their new surroundings, the kind of success the Knicks are hoping for is a long way off.

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