NEW YORK -- Ah, now this is how it's supposed to be. Madison Square Garden is rocking. The Knicks, chasing their first postseason win in a decade, are storming back against the powerful Boston Celtics. Spike Lee, an Easter vision in Knicks-orange porkpie hat and matching scarf, is exhorting the crowd. From another courtside seat, famously inscrutable (not to mention nearly invisible) owner James Dolan is excited ... well, maybe, more like interested ... well, maybe more like ... look, he appears to have a pulse, OK?
And out on the court, new franchise cornerstones Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are leading the comeback, aided by a formidable trio of ... of ...
Anthony Carter, Roger Mason Jr. and Shawne Williams?
Well, every partially, half-made, incomplete fairy tale has to come to an end, and so it was for the Knicks on Sunday, a day after the NHL's Rangers also expired. The Celtics, who have a lineup replete with crowd-quieters, came out of a timeout and tuned up the Knicks 17-9 over the final seven minutes en route to a 101-89 victory and a sweep of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
And so the Knicks are the first "early out," soon to be joined by the Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers, teams in the process of discovering why April, as T.S. Eliot told us, is the cruelest month. The joy of just making the playoffs, often the stated preseason goal, is replaced by the reality of, We're really not all that good, and we're certainly way behind the teams that beat us.
But that reality is perhaps harshest in New York, where the lights shine brightest and where toil Stoudemire and Anthony, two of the best offensive players in the league, a fact that many conflate with instant success. The Knicks are in fact a disjointed work in progress, and I'm not so sure about that "progress" part.
But first some good news. Stoudemire's stout-hearted play (19 points, 12 rebounds, 44 minutes on the court and battling hard until the end) on Sunday, accomplished with a strained back that even his coaches and some of his teammates thought would keep him out of the game, reflected the energy and leadership he brought to the Knicks all season. Several times over the past months I've been asked to reconcile the "new Stoudemire" with the portrait I drew of him in a book about the 2005-06 season, one I spent with the Phoenix Suns, for whom he then played. (Stoudemire, who was only 23 at the time, was injured much of the season and sometimes showed a spotty work ethic and a disinclination to be a supportive teammate.) My answer is this: Human beings have the capacity to mature and change, and Stoudemire has done it better than most who are cursed to grow up in the spotlight. He seems to be the real deal, and I couldn't be happier for him.
Then, too, Stoudemire was not the only wounded -- point guard Chauncey Billups was a DNP after Game 1, leaving much of the quarterbacking load to a combination of unproven and streaky Toney Douglas and Carter, a pro's pro of a backup, but a backup nevertheless. That suggests that a healthy Billups might've changed the outcome.
But the reality is, even with a 100-percent Stoudemire (who injured himself in Game 2 warm-ups) and a healthy Billups, the Knicks had little chance of beating the Celtics, little chance, in fact, of getting this thing beyond five games. Which suggests that they have numerous questions to answer in this offseason.
• The most immediate, of course, is the future of president Donnie Walsh, whose contract expires on June 30 and who has been in contract-option purgatory for a quite a while. Dolan has until Saturday to pick it up for next season, or he could give Walsh an extension before July 1. Asking me to speculate on what Dolan will do is like asking me to speculate about cantaloupe futures. But Walsh should be retained. He was asked to sweep out the garbage contracts and create cap space, and that is precisely what he did. Execs with his wisdom and years of experience are not easily found.
Speculation has also centered on coach Mike D'Antoni, who has one year left on a four-year deal. He should be retained, too. I need to make the obligatory disclaimer here: As a result of that Suns book, I'm no doubt viewed in some circles as a D'Antoni apologist. But he, like Walsh, was brought in with a long-range plan in mind, and, if the Knicks haven't exceeded expectations, they have certainly met them, while overcoming more than a few unexpected injury hiccups along the way.
D'Antoni has been criticized for his late-game chalkboarding, which is exactly the part of his coaching game that is the strongest. Even the best coaches need options. Flash back to the crucial closing minutes in Game 2, when both Stoudemire and Billups were on the bench. With the Celtics needing a basket, here's what the Knicks had to cover in the timeout huddle. All right, watch for [Rajon] Rondo because he can penetrate, and he's not supposed to be able to shoot but he's knocking down jumpers, so watch for that. And of course you can't leave [Ray] Allen, who won Game 1 with a jumper. And, look, they'll probably iso [Paul] Pierce over there on the wing, and, like Allen, he's won about a 100 games over the last few years. And, listen, they could post up [Kevin] Garnett on the blocks and use his size because he's going to the Hall of Fame ...
The Celtics chose that last option, and the 7-foot Garnett canned a turnaround over makeshift defender Jared Jeffries.
With the Knicks needing a basket to tie, here's what Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to cover: Fellas, watch for Carmelo. They did. Anthony got it, tried to shovel it to Jeffries and Garnett smothered the play.
(In a world where you have to explain everything, don't take that as a slam on Rivers, who has proved to be one of the top coaches in the league.)
• The continued relevancy of Billups is not a tough question -- he is absolutely not the point guard of the future for this franchise. He'll be an old 35 by the beginning of next season, and, on a team that desperately needs to put Stoudemire and Anthony in the pick-and-roll, he's not a pick-and-roll specialist. But the question of Billups' immediate future is a tough one to which I don't pretend to have a satisfactory answer. So here's my unsatisfactory answer: Pick up his $14.2 million option, give him the ball next year (as long as he's healthy) and start panting for Chris Paul or Deron Williams, free agents the following season. Line forms to the left.
• Finally and most perplexingly, there is the question of the compatibility of the marquee stars. I asked Walsh before Sunday's game to suggest past players who remind him of the Stoudemire-Anthony combo. Walsh thought for a moment and -- in the time-honored manner of team execs who stare into a bowl of cracked eggs and see a fluffy soufflé -- said: "Well, maybe Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen?" Hmm, rather than the best player of all time and maybe the 40th best player of all time, I was thinking more about two guys who both need the ball, who are volume shooters and ball-stoppers and who are sometimes indifferent and clueless defenders.
In truth, the compatibility of Stoudemire and Anthony is really not a question. They are not compatible. They are versions of the same guy, however exquisite that guy can sometimes be. But they are talented and they aren't going anywhere and they have the wattage to fill up the Garden on most nights, which is not insignificant since Dolan has significantly jacked up ticket prices for next season.
The challenge for Walsh is to find complementary pieces, most importantly, a rough-and-tumble-don't-need-the-ball big man. The challenges for D'Antoni are these: establish a team defensive identity (that has been his weakness) from the get-go and convince his leaders, particularly Anthony, that energy starts on that end, too; turn Anthony into a part-time point forward who can find Billups on the wing (Anthony can be selfish but he's actually a good passer); balance the touches between Stoudemire and Anthony; and rediscover a running offense (perhaps with Douglas) that, from time to time, releases the open-court abilities of his two horses.
It goes without saying that all of that is easier said than done. But the Knicks will have Anthony in training camp, presumably ready to turn around his rep as a malcontent who can't win the big ones. In October, everything will look brighter. April is when it looks dim.