As the Knicks Say Goodbye, a Busy and Challenging Off-Season Awaits

The collected evidence against them is damning. The were ousted Wednesday in the first round of the playoffs by the Miami Heat, who dispatched them in five games. They were swept in the first round last spring by the Boston Celtics.

Fifteen months after the blockbuster trade that brought Anthony to New York and united him with Stoudemire, the Knicks are still in search of greatness, or even consistency. They are 31-40 when both stars play, including a 1-7 record in the postseason.

So the doubts persist.

“I get tired of hearing that, man,” Anthony said Thursday, when the Knicks conducted their annual postseason exit interviews. “I get tired of hearing about, Can it work? Will it work? We’re here to play basketball. When we win, it works. When we lose, it don’t work.”

Anthony insisted: “We’ll figure it out. I don’t really think it’s something that’s that difficult to figure out.”

The Knicks, who went 36-30 in this compressed season, are headed for a busy and challenging off-season.

They are already moving to re-sign Coach Mike Woodson, who compiled an 18-6 regular-season record after replacing Mike D’Antoni. Woodson has the enthusiastic support of his stars. A deal could be completed by next week.

The Knicks also seem committed to re-signing , their young point guard sensation, who will be a restricted free agent. Woodson practically guaranteed it.

“Will he back next year? Absolutely,” Woodson said. “He’s a big part of our ball club.”

Woodson was less definitive about Lin returning as a starter, saying, “Only time will tell.”

Lin, who revived the Knicks’ season in February and became an international star, said he wanted to return to the team that gave him his N.B.A. break.

“I think it’d be great if I could come back,” Lin said, “but crazy things happen.”

The Knicks will have to use their midlevel exception, worth $5 million, to retain Lin (salary-cap rules will prevent rivals from offering more). Yet once they do, the Knicks will have little flexibility to sign players for anything more than the minimum. And they are almost certain to encounter a new rule that effectively imposes a hard payroll cap at $74 million.

Salary-cap constraints could prevent the Knicks from retaining their other top free agents, most notably Landry Fields, Steve Novak and J. R. Smith (if he opts out of his contract).

Fields has the best chance of staying, as a restricted free agent with “.” Smith is widely expected to opt out of his $2.5 million deal, although he said he is undecided. The Knicks will be unable to match any richer offers.

Then there is Novak, who is heading for his first big payday after leading the league in 3-point shooting. Novak is unrestricted, with no Bird rights. Assuming the Knicks use the midlevel exception for Lin, they will be left only with the biannual exception, worth $1.96 million, which might not be enough.

“All I know is how much I’ve enjoyed playing here and how much I would love to be back,” said Novak, a fan favorite.

The various cap restrictions will make it nearly impossible to sign an impact player, such as Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, unless he accepts a minimum salary. Or the Knicks would have to cut loose Lin, to keep their midlevel exception.

As much as any personnel move, the need to blend the talents of Anthony and Stoudemire will dominate the Knicks’ agenda in the months to come. They are the franchise’s two highest-paid players — earning a combined $39.4 million next season — and their two best scorers. They are under contract for three more seasons, so the Knicks’ championship hopes are dependent on their partnership blossoming.

“It definitely can work,” said Stoudemire, who contends the Knicks simply need time and stability.

Indeed, the Knicks have had little of either commodity since Anthony and Stoudemire became teammates.

Without Lin, Knicks Back at Point of Disarray

When the Jeremy Lin joyride finally crashed, it was not because of opposing defenses, scouting reports, ’s ball domination or Mike Woodson’s playbook. As it turned out, a bit of frayed knee cartilage was the culprit.

Arthroscopic knee surgery will probably end Lin’s breakout season, leaving the pretty much where they were two months ago: a jumbled, banged-up mess.

The timing could not be worse, with 13 games left to play, a string of tough matchups ahead and the Knicks (27-26) clinging loosely to a playoff bid.

The Knicks are now missing their best playmaker (Lin) and their second- and third-leading scorers (Amar’e Stoudemire and Lin). Their offense is in the hands of Baron Davis, who turns 33 in two weeks and has a balky back and lifeless legs.

Behind Davis is the same group of backups whose failures nearly sunk the Knicks before Lin seized the point-guard job and saved the season.

The Knicks will be ever more dependent on Anthony, who has repeatedly shown that he is best as a scorer and not an orchestrator. Without Lin and Stoudemire, the offense shifts toward Anthony, Davis and J. R. Smith, three veterans with well-established reputations as high-usage, low-efficiency scorers.

The Knicks still have the ability to score in abundance, a defensive stalwart in Tyson Chandler and ample leadership in Chandler and Stoudemire. What they will be missing, in these critical final four weeks, is that single, unifying force who elevates teammates and inspires the partisan crowds. Lin was that force, a selfless playmaker who was beloved in the locker room and in living rooms.

The Knicks were 8-15 before Lin exploded in that memorable Feb. 4 victory over the Nets. They went 16-10 in his 26 games as the primary point guard, including a 9-2 stretch that was as enjoyable as anything the Knicks have done in years.

Lin’s effect on the offense was noteworthy. Before his emergence, the Knicks averaged 18.9 assists per game, with 55.3 percent of their field goals produced by a pass. During Lin’s run, the Knicks averaged 21 assists a game, with assists on 57.2 percent of their shots. In the four games since Lin went down, those figures have plummeted, to 16.8 assists a game, and an assist rate of 51.5.

Indeed, the Knicks’ identity seems to be in the midst of another seismic shift — from a team that thrived on ball movement and a spread-the-wealth philosophy to a team based on defense first, and a grind-it-out offense in which a handful of players dominate the ball.

In recent games, the Knicks’ offense was often reduced to Anthony dribbling and shooting, Smith dribbling and shooting or Davis dribbling and shooting.

With Lin gone, whatever remained of Mike D’Antoni’s spread-the-floor offense may go with him. This doesn’t mean the Knicks will necessarily be worse off, just drastically different and, to a purist’s eyes, much less aesthetically pleasing.

“It’s definitely going to change,” Chandler said of the Knicks’ personality. “Jeremy brought a tempo to us.” He added, “We’re going to have to play more of a grind style; we got to let our defense lead us.”

Since Lin went down, the Knicks have registered ugly victories over Milwaukee and Cleveland and an ugly loss to Atlanta. (Their rollicking rout of Orlando was hard to quantify because of the Magic’s apparent lack of interest and subsequent reports that their players were partying until 3 a.m. the night before the game.)

It went practically unnoticed, but Lin was also the Knicks’ second most productive free-throw shooter, averaging 6.3 foul shots a game over his 26-game run. Only Anthony (6.7) averages more. Leaguewide, only 10 players average more foul shots per game than Lin did in his seven weeks as the Knicks’ starter.

For all of the persistent doubts about Lin — and they are understandable, given his short résumé — his final statistics are more than respectable.

Lin averaged 18.5 points in 26 games as an everyday player, which would rank seventh among point guards; and 7.6 assists, which would rank 10th. His turnover rate was high (4.5 per game), but it was steadily declining in recent weeks.

At 23, Lin is young, eager and continually improving, with a . The Knicks would be foolish not to re-sign him as a restricted free agent this summer, even if it means using their entire midlevel exception.

Oddly, it is Davis who has more to prove. He is only months removed from a herniated disk that nearly ended his career. He is averaging a modest 8.5 points and 5.5 assists — and 4 turnovers per game — as the starting point guard.

Davis can no longer break down a defense or turn the corner on the pick-and-roll, which makes it hard to create scoring chances for teammates.

Without a steady point guard, the Knicks need Anthony that much more.

Linsanity is sidelined. D’Antoni is gone. For the next four weeks, this is indisputably Anthony’s team. The Knicks can only hope he justifies their faith.

Mike Woodson Has Knicks Playing Effectively

Play Hard

Play Smart

Play Together

Have Fun

The same four lines had appeared for the past few years when was the coach, had been realized at the height of ’s emergence and had been discarded when returned from injury and J. R. Smith and Baron Davis joined the rotation.

But those four lines have been realized again in Mike Woodson’s first three games — all double-digit wins — as interim coach.

In a season defined by the unpredictable, these Knicks have responded unexpectedly. Instead of seeing Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire dominate the ball since D’Antoni resigned last week, fans have seen the scoring shared. Instead of being the end of Lin’s enchanted story, it is the start of another chapter.

Woodson’s stars are leading, but they are sharing the spotlight.

Anthony, who had grumbled about his role in D’Antoni’s offense, let Lin take over against the Pacers when the Knicks (21-24) were ahead by 3 points with eight minutes left in the game. Lin scored 8 points in a 9-1 run that built the Knicks’ final cushion. Instead of just waiting for the ball, Anthony cut to the basket and involved his teammates when he played at the point.

After scoring 16 points, Anthony said Woodson’s Knicks had “realized how serious it is right now,” with only 21 games left in the shortened season. Most of Anthony’s shots in the winning streak have come within the flow of the game, and he has taken fewer over all.

During the six-game losing streak that preceded the Knicks’ current winning streak, Anthony averaged 18 shots a game, hitting 38 percent, a little below his season average. But under Woodson, while playing in two blowouts and one close game that turned ugly late, Anthony has taken 12, 12 and 13 shots and has averaged two more assists per game, And the Knicks’ scoring has evened out: seven players have averaged double-digit points in the three games.

Woodson’s offense has included a few more post-up plays, Lin said Saturday. He added that he was “learning to play in a less spread offense.”

“A lot of stuff is the same, but there are times when I won’t have as many opportunities,” Lin said. “I just need to be selective about when to go. I think tonight was a big step for me.”

Going against the Pacers’ Darren Collison, Lin recorded 13 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists Friday, and then 19, 7 and 6 Saturday, with only five turnovers total in the two games.

But the Knicks’ turnaround did not start with Anthony or Lin; rather, the Knicks point to their defense. They limited a sleepy Portland team to 29 first-half points and twice held down a competent Pacers squad.

Woodson did not install a new tactical system, though.

“Defensively, the concepts have all been the same,” Lin said. “We haven’t changed anything. I just think we have all 15 guys on the same page, buying in.”

Stoudemire said Woodson simply challenged the team to pressure the ball, rebound and guard pick-and-rolls on defense, while “offensively, just play your game and have fun.”

“All this stuff we talked about beforehand, we’re starting to do now,” Stoudemire said.

Many of the Knicks liked D’Antoni and his system, but Woodson has proved to have a strong presence.

“He’s able to motivate us,” Anthony said. “He’s able to get the best out of everybody. We can lock in defensively, not have to worry about offense because now we’re relying on our defense to get our offense.”

ESPN reported last week that some of Anthony’s teammates were upset that D’Antoni had not forced him to play within the offense. But Woodson has said he will hold his best players accountable.

“I think he just stays on top of guys — throughout the game, in shootaround, in practices, before the game, here in halftime,” Tyson Chandler said of Woodson. “He just kind of keeps you on your toes.”