NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony caught a Baron Davis entry pass in the first quarter, turned and knocked down a 7-footer before 15 seconds had bled off the game clock. It was one of nine shots in the quarter, 11 in the half and 20 for the game for Anthony, numbers that likely would have swelled had he not picked up a second foul late in the first quarter.
It was classic Anthony, a circa 2010 performance that was enough to push the Knicks to an 89-80 win over Milwaukee on Monday night -- and, more importantly, give them a 2 1/2 game lead for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Classic, however, may need to become new again. Hours earlier head coach Mike Woodson dropped a bombshell: Amar'e Stoudemire had a bulging disk in his back and would be out indefinitely. Bulging disk injuries are unpredictable, several sports injury experts told SI.com. The Knicks will likely shoot Stoudemire up with cortisone for the next few days and hope it calms down. If it works, he could only miss a couple of weeks. If it doesn't, then surgery may be required, ending Stoudemire's season and, potentially, putting his career in jeopardy.
"You don't wish that on any player, especially Amar'e who's a big part of what we do," Woodson said. "All we can do is hope it's not as serious as it may be and that he has a speedy recovery. If he has to have surgery, he's got to rehab and come back. He's still a young player. He's got a lot of games left in him."
Woodson's announcement was a stunner, though in hindsight, maybe it shouldn't have been. For all the talk about Stoudemire's surgically repaired knee, his back has been the Knicks' biggest concern. Last spring, Stoudemire pulled a muscle in his back, an injury that kept him off the court for the better part of seven months. Stoudemire tacked on 15 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-10 frame in the offseason, in part to protect his back from future problems. After a sluggish start, Stoudemire later admitted that was a mistake, and had been gradually reducing his weight to close to the 245 pounds he played at last season.
Bulging disks usually are not considered serious -- most heal on their own -- but the fact that the Knicks are publicly opening the door to surgery suggests this one might be. The team has a history with this kind of injury: Danilo Gallinari suffered a bulging disk in the 2008 summer league that limited him to 28 games in the '08-'09 season and ultimately required a laminotomy, a procedure where doctors shaved down a bony plate in his back that was irritating a nearby nerve.
The Knicks will run much of their offense through Anthony now, and Monday night offered a glimpse into how it will look. With Stoudemire gone, en route to Miami for a second opinion, and Jeremy Lin (knee) out, New York scrapped most of Mike D'Antoni's system -- "This is all Woody," said a scout -- and ran most possessions through Anthony, who responded with an awkward looking 28-point, 12-rebound and one-assist night.
Anthony didn't get much help -- the Knicks shot 35.1 percent from the floor, 22.6 percent from beyond the arc -- but he didn't look for much, either. It was enough to outlast Milwaukee, a team playing its fourth game in five nights, a team still trying to develop chemistry between back-court mates Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. The question is, even when Lin returns, will it be enough to compete with everyone else?
"[Carmelo] is going to have to do his part, knowing that other teams will probably try to double and take the ball out of his hands," Woodson said. "I feel comfortable with other guys making shots. Tonight we just didn't make them. He reached down and did what he had to do to get the job done."
Indeed, the Knicks are Anthony's team now, his to carry, his to control. No one expects New York to compete for a championship this year, but with a little breathing room the Knicks, even with Stoudemire out, will be expected to stave off Milwaukee and claim a playoff berth that might just salvage the season. The road won't be easy -- the combined winning percentage of the teams left on the Knicks' schedule is .528 -- but if they can do it, it might just redeem a roller coaster ride of a season for Anthony, too.