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Too little, too late: Knicks' stars put on a show to avoid early sweep

NEW YORK -- At first glance, the streamers that fell from the roof of Madison Square Garden almost as soon as Dwyane Wade's errant three-pointer that would have eliminated the Knicks might have seemed a bit much. After all, New York's 89-87 triumph in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals was merely one win and it did little to dispel the notion that the Knicks are nothing but a speed bump in Miami's increasingly wide-open path to a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

But while the outcome may not have done much to loosen the Heat's still-firm grasp on this series, it did offer a measure of catharsis for a long-suffering fan base and for two star players whom the Big Apple has taken quite a bite out of these past few days.

It was the Knicks' first postseason win since April of 2001 and ended an NBA record of 13 consecutive playoff losses, yet another source of embarrassment for a franchise that has had plenty of experience with such things in the past 11 years.

This year has been no different, from a slew of injuries, the birth and death of Linsanity, rumors of discord between players and coaches and the midseason firing of head coach Mike D'Antoni to name just a few. Ringling Brothers may be bypassing Madison Square Garden this spring, but thanks to the Knicks the circus was very much in town all year long.

The most recent entrant into this no-ring circus was Amar'e Stoudemire, the $100 million man imported to New York before last season to bring legitimacy back to a franchise trending dangerously close to laughingstock status. After walking off the court following New York's loss in Game 2 last Monday, Stoudemire did something that was no laughing matter when he decided to pick a fight with the glass fire extinguisher case and lost. He was rightly lambasted for losing his cool in a manner so dangerous for himself and destructive for his team's chances. He would miss Game 3, another Knicks loss that dropped them into an all-but insurmountable 0-3 hole and during which the ravenous New York media acquired a new target of scorn.

Carmelo Anthony has been pegged a superstar since his first days in the league nine years ago, a moniker earned more for his prodigious scoring -- a 24.7 regular-season career average -- than for anything truly super he had actually achieved. Yet in the wake of his dreadful 7-of-23 shooting and typically absent defense in Game 3 a new label was stuck to him: underachiever. That might even be a polite way of categorizing a player whose 16-36 postseason record, entering Sunday, was the worst in the past 20 years by any player who had taken part in at least 50 postseason games.

"I try not to think about that when I'm out there," Anthony said after Game 4. "My goal is to go out and win basketball games."

On Sunday he did, delivering a performance that was, in a word, super: 41 points on 15-of-29 shooting that included a slew of huge shots in the second half. Stoudemire had more than, ahem, a hand in the victory as well, with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 34 minutes.

Whatever has been and will be in the Anthony/Stoudemire Era, for the Knicks and their fans Sunday was for relief and rejoicing, of hopes realized and dreams born anew. For one day at least, Anthony was the devastating scorer and clutch performer the Knicks pinned their hopes on when they sent four players and a first-round draft pick to Denver to get him in February 2011, and Stoudemire was the gritty warrior on the inside who could be counted on for muscle and toughness. For one day, the Knicks' plan made perfect sense, their two centerpieces played the superstar roles into which they have been cast and the result was a rollicking Madison Square Garden and a postseason victory that made Stoudemire's proclamation that "This was the first of many" seem like the truth. Both were instrumental in keeping the Knicks' season alive for one more day.

Early in the third quarter, Miami surged to an 11-point lead, its largest cushion of the day. Stoudemire, though, scored the game's next five points to ignite the crowd and Anthony took over from there. He tied the game at 52 with one layup, then made another in transition for a three-point play that gave the Knicks their first lead since the end of the first quarter. With six minutes to go and the Knicks down two, Anthony had another three-point play to put New York in front again. Down two again as the clock ticked toward two minutes, Anthony delivered once more, hitting a jumper over Shane Battier to tie the score.

Anthony saved his biggest shot for last. With the score tied at 84 and less than a minute remaining, he got free at the top of the key and pulled up for a three-pointer that gave the Knicks a lead they would not relinquish. Though Anthony provided one last moment of Melodrama -- missing two of three free throws that could have salted the game away -- the Heat never drew even again.

While some may have sensed inevitability in Anthony's big day -- "The law of averages says he was due for a game like this," said Miami's Shane Battier -- the truth is that his effort, as much as his points total, deserves praise. Rarely did he settle for the first available jump shot, instead forcing his way into the paint repeatedly for easier shots, as both LeBron James and Battier were unable to contain his penetration.

Anthony, often characterized as an indifferent defender even on his best days, even dove on the floor on defense going for a steal, earning a well-deserved round of applause from the Garden faithful.

It may have seemed that Anthony's extra effort was a response to the criticism leveled at him in recent days that he is a ball-stopper, that he doesn't try hard enough on defense and that he can't carry a team in the postseason. But if he heard such charges, he didn't admit it. Only the team's desperate state served as extra motivation, he said, adding, "We stepped up to the challenge."

The challenge still in front of the Knicks remains daunting and, in truth, all but impossible to overcome. The Heat are still the superior team and they still have the Knicks on the precipice. Whether or not the Knicks return to the Garden this season, they will always have that day when their stars aligned, when there was a reason to think the future bright again and when the streamers falling from the sky celebrated not just a victory won but the promise of many more to come.

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