For a fleeting moment last February, on a night built for glory and self-affirmation, and Amar’e Stoudemire beat . The symbolism was as powerful as the result.
James drove, Anthony gave chase and Stoudemire blocked a potential game-winning layup in the closing seconds, propelling the . The victory came five days after Anthony became a Knick, and it provided all the tangible justification that team officials needed for that controversial trade.
In that moment, the Knicks were the Heat’s equals, with a chorus of stars — Anthony, Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups — to match Miami’s celebrated Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That was how the Knicks viewed it, anyway.
“One of the bigger wins of last season,” Anthony said, looking back. “It was a momentum win. It was a confidence booster for us.”
It was of course an illusion, a timely but mostly meaningless triumph. The Knicks were not the Heat’s equal then, nor are they now, as the rivals prepare to meet again Friday night.
The Heat proceeded to march to the N.B.A. finals last season, falling two victories shy of a championship. The Knicks were swept in the first round by the aging but still-potent Boston Celtics.
The Knicks have since replaced one star (Billups) with another (Tyson Chandler), in the undying belief that three stars automatically ensures championship contention. But, as they are now demonstrating nightly, not all Big Threes are created equally, or logically.
The Knicks arrived in Miami with a 7-11 record, despite the presence of two dominant scorers and a top defensive center. Their offense is bordering on incoherent. Coach Mike D’Antoni, who made a career out of his offensive ingenuity, seems flummoxed.
Anthony is struggling with wrist, thumb and ankle injuries. Stoudemire is still regaining his timing and his game legs after an off-season spent recovering from a back injury. Every role player seems to have taken a step backward.
All of these things may work themselves out in the weeks to come, and the Knicks could find their stride by the end of this hectic 66-game season. any day now, may prove to be the critical missing element, a playmaker who brings order to a chaotic offense.
But those are some pretty weighty maybes, and no team should be dependent on a 32-year-old point guard with back troubles after it invested $237 million in three stars. Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler are supposed to be the Knicks’ foundation, the equivalent of Miami’s James, Wade and Bosh; or Boston’s Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen; or the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
That is surely what James L. Dolan, the Madison Square Garden chairman, believed when he pushed through the Anthony trade last February over the objections of his basketball executives. Anthony was a marquee name and a dazzling performer who could justify big increases in ticket prices while presumably winning a few playoff games. His arrival increased sales and television ratings, so Dolan achieved that much.
But the Knicks’ Big Three do not compare to the others for basketball reasons that surely elude the Garden hierarchy. The Celtics’ partnership worked in 2007-8 because Pierce, Garnett and Allen brought different skills to the lineup — and were joined by a burgeoning fourth star, Rajon Rondo. Although James and Wade initially struggled to blend their games, the Heat thrived because James and Wade are multidimensional players who can score, pass and defend.
For all their scoring prowess, neither Anthony nor Stoudemire is so well-rounded. Anthony, who was considered James’s equal when they were drafted in 2003, has neither James’s playmaking skills nor his defensive intensity. Stoudemire is similarly lacking. Both Stoudemire and Anthony demand the ball and a lot of shots. They have rarely thrived simultaneously, each player performing his best when the other is on the bench.
These subtleties are lost on Garden officials, who seem to approach roster-building like a fantasy basketball draft, with no regard for balance, chemistry or cohesion — to say nothing of depth. The Knicks would have been better off waiting for Deron Williams or Chris Paul, but they would not have generated the buzz or the cash to pay for part of the Garden’s $800 million renovation.
Anthony’s penchant for dominating the ball has stifled D’Antoni’s fluid offense and often turned Stoudemire into a bystander. When Stoudemire repeatedly preaches that the Knicks need to “move the ball” and “buy into” D’Antoni’s system, he is referring to Anthony more than anyone.
“It works,” Stoudemire said Wednesday, after a 91-81 loss in Cleveland. “It’s proven that it works.”
Anthony’s injuries have only exacerbated matters, making him a high-volume shooter with a low success rate. He is 40 of 126 (.317) since spraining his left wrist, but he was struggling even before that, going 26 of 67 (.388) in the previous four games.
The Knicks cannot win with Anthony taking 25 to 30 shots and making only a third of them. They cannot win without the tempo and ball movement that helps role players such as Landry Fields find their rhythm. It was no coincidence that the offense flowed better at Charlotte when Anthony took only seven shots.
For now, the Knicks remain an imbalanced team, with a talented, though ill-fitting frontcourt, a flimsy backcourt and a weak bench. Like the Miami Heat, they have three stars. But they are nothing like the Miami Heat.