After missing the first 30 games of the 2012-13 season following left knee surgery, Amar’e Stoudemire returned to NBA action on Tuesday night when the New York Knicks took on the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden, as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski first reported he would. And while New York’s front office has reportedly worked diligently to move him elsewhere, the MSG faithful were happy to see him come home, as Stoudemire was met with a standing ovation when he checked in at the 3:31 mark of the opening quarter:
Unfortunately, the rest of the evening didn’t go quite so smoothly for Stoudemire, who — somewhat expectedly — looked rusty on both ends of the floor, clearly didn’t have his legs or wind back after so much time on the shelf and offered relatively little in the Knicks’ 105-100 loss to the Blazers.
Shortly after entering the game, Stoudemire got his first touch on the left block, defended by Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and promptly turned the ball over by stepping out of bounds while trying to make a post move on Aldridge along the baseline. (Here’s hoping Hakeem wasn’t watching.) He got his first shot up two possessions later, hoisting a jumper from the left elbow that went wanting … as did his next four shots, leaving him scoreless in 9 1/2 minutes of first-half action.
Things didn’t go much better on the defensive end, where he routinely looked lost, especially on a second-quarter pick-and-roll possession on which he completely forgot about Blazers center J.J. Hickson, who cut behind Stoudemire unmolested to the rim to dunk a lob thrown by Portland reserve guard Ronnie Price. Not that Stoudemire was alone in his defensive lapses — Hickson torched the Knicks’ frontline for 18 points (on 9 for 10 shooting) and eight rebounds in the first half, while sterling rookie point guard Damian Lillard toyed with older defenders Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni en route to 12 points and five assists at intermission.
Stoudemire made his sixth shot, scoring his first points of the season at the 3:11 mark of the third quarter on a layup generated by rolling to the rim after setting a screen near the right elbow for Carmelo Anthony. Two minutes later, he sagged along the baseline as J.R. Smith penetrated the paint, drew the defense and dished it off, setting up a big Amar’e dunk over Blazers rookie Victor Claver:
Playing on a minutes restriction as Knicks coach Mike Woodson looks to slowly work the 30-year-old former All-Star into the rotation, Stoudemire finished with six points on 3 for 8 shooting, one rebound, one block and two turnovers in just under 17 minutes. Rust aside, he offered glimpses of an intriguing pick-and-roll pairing with Prigioni on the second unit and, at times, with Anthony in potential starting/closing lineups — if nothing else, he draws more defensive attention than nominal starting power forward Kurt Thomas — while resembling the unaware defensive liability NBA fans have come to know over the past decade.
All that said: The Knicks didn’t lose to Portland because Stoudemire was rusty or because he couldn’t play alongside Anthony and Tyson Chandler, but rather because the Knicks continue to have difficulty stopping anybody from scoring for any considerable period of time.
Since Dec. 1, the Knicks have allowed opponents to score an average of 105.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, which is the league’s eighth-worst mark over that stretch. They’re allowing opponents to shoot 46.8 percent from the floor (tied for fourth-worst in the league), including a 62.3 percent mark inside the restricted area (fifth-worst), and they’re just outside the bottom-third of the league in points allowed in the paint. Their switch-happy method of defending pick-and-rolls has left them susceptible to size/speed mismatches and dribble penetration; they’re 22nd in the league this year at defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers and 24th on roll men, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and their ball-watching/steal-hunting leaves them susceptible to backdoor cuts.
The Blazers exploited all of the Knicks’ defensive shortcomings on Tuesday night, with the frontcourt of Aldridge (19 points, 14 rebounds), Hickson (who finished with 18 and nine after getting into foul trouble in the second half) and Nicolas Batum (26 points, six assists, four rebounds) spending much of the game dominating New York’s interior defense. That trio combined for 22 points and 10 boards in the opening quarter, which saw the Blazers score 30 points despite shooting just 46 percent from the floor, thanks to all the second-chance (14) and paint (12) points they generated.
They led by 19 in the second quarter, 13 in the third and 15 in the fourth, before a 13-2 run got the Knicks within hailing distance late. But after Anthony hit a 3-pointer to draw the Knicks within three with 57 seconds remaining, Lillard hit a monster stepback 3-pointer to push Portland’s lead to six points with 35 ticks left, capping another big performance — 21 points, six assists, five rebounds — in the Weber State product’s ongoing Rookie of the Year campaign.
Anthony kept the Knicks afloat largely by himself for much of the game, scoring a season-high-tying 45 points on 14 for 24 shooting and adding seven rebounds and four assists in more than 41 minutes of work in his first action after missing two games with a hyperextended left knee. New York guard J.R. Smith continued his strong play as well, kicking in 28 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals off the Knick bench. But the rest of the Knicks struggled mightily on Tuesday, shooting just 12 for 38 (31.6 percent) from the floor and hitting only one of their 14 3-point tries — Jason Kidd and Steve Novak combined to go 0 for 10 from the floor, missing eight long balls between them. The result: New York’s third loss in four games and its fifth in the last eight heading into Thursday night’s meeting with the San Antonio Spurs.
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