NEW YORK -- At the end of the Knicks bench Amar'e Stoudemire fidgeted, wringing his hands, tapping his feet, doing anything to expel the nervous energy. He squirmed as Mike Woodson called on J.R. Smith, then Steve Novak, then Pablo Prigioni in the first quarter. He exploded off the bench during a timeout and high-fived anyone with hands.
"I was nervous," Stoudemire admitted. "My heart was beating fast. I had butterflies in my stomach. I felt like I was a rookie all over again."
Finally, with 3:31 remaining in the opening quarter, it happened: Stoudemire, two months removed from left knee surgery, eight months from his last NBA game, made his season debut, playing 17 minutes in New York's 105-100 loss to Portland and kicking off a pivotal stretch of the Knicks' season.
Ultimately, it didn't matter what Stoudemire did for the Knicks on Tuesday. The Blazers have an All-Star power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge and a vastly improved center in J.J. Hickson, both of whom took turns humiliating Stoudemire defensively. Aldridge drove past him on the perimeter, Hickson outworked him in the paint. Stoudemire was rusty and, said Knicks assistant coach Herb Williams in a halftime interview, "looked mixed up." He missed his first four shots, finishing 3-for-8 from the floor, and collected just one rebound.
"The game," Stoudemire said, "felt like it was going 100 miles an hour."
That he was on the floor, though, is most important, because the Knicks badly need him. The shine on a team that won 19 of its first 25 games is off, coated with the stain of losing four of its last six. Injuries -- to point guard Raymond Felton, to leading scorer Carmelo Anthony -- have bitten the Knicks, and the vaunted defense that highlighted the first month of the season has sprung holes. Consider: In November, New York surrendered 94.4 points per game while allowing opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from the floor. In December, the Knicks were gashed for 99.5 points per game, with opponents shooting 46.6 percent from the field.
"We're really getting away from our principles," said Tyson Chandler. "We're second guessing ourselves. We have to get back to sticking to what we have had success with."
Stoudemire won't help the defense, not now, not a few months from now, really. He's just not built like that. But his presence gives a potent offense one more weapon to work with. There were flashes of the old Amar'e on Tuesday -- a running layup off a pick-and-roll here, a tomahawk dunk over Victor Claver there -- offering optimism that the All-Star version of Amar'e could return. Stoudemire said his knee felt "phenomenal" after the game and said, citing conversations with a few of the Knicks' elder statesmen, that he would need 5-10 games to regain his form.
"We have to keep working with him," said Knicks coach Mike Woodson. "We have to take it a day at a time [and] see how he feels tomorrow. The guy has been sitting out a while. We will get him back to the old Amar'e."
The question of Stoudemire's ability to co-exist with Anthony continues to hang over the Knicks, and it wouldn't be answered Tuesday night. Woodson mixed and matched lineups against Portland, playing Stoudemire at center with Anthony for some possessions, lining up Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler together for others. Stoudemire attempted to dampen talk that he would bristle at a reserve role -- "I don't want to interrupt nothing at all," Stoudemire said -- but until the two ball dominating stars develop chemistry, the questions will persist.
"There is no rush," Stoudemire said. "Guys have been playing well all season long. There is no rush to force the issue. When that time is needed and if coach needs me, I'll be there."
He will need to be. Teams that win championships without a dominant post presence are the exceptions, not the rule, and even with their collection of three-point shooters the Knicks will need more to dethrone the Heat in the Eastern Conference, to challenge the Clippers, Thunder or Grizzlies out West. New York is still shooting three's at a blistering clip (28.9 per game) but the team's aggressive pursuit at the three-point line has caused its' percentage (39.3) to slip. On Tuesday, Stoudemire entered the game to a standing ovation, the cheers of 19,033 fans nearly bringing tears to his eyes. He is back. Now, for the Knicks to win this season, he has to be better.