Injuries, a coaching change and chemistry experiments interrupted the alignment at times this season, but Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire were together again Friday, teamed against their reserves — Jerome Jordan, Josh Harrellson and Steve Novak — in a shooting contest. From various spots on the floor, the first group to make five shots would win the round.
“Come on, Stat,” Anthony urged Stoudemire at one point, calling him by his nickname.
“Boom! Game time,” Stoudemire bellowed, as he knocked down a winning shot.
On Friday night, Anthony and Stoudemire will team up in time to experiment once again with touches, rotations and chemistry. The Knicks have four games left in the regular season. After Friday, the Knicks, who have clinched a playoff berth, will play Atlanta, the Los Angeles Clippers and Charlotte, and still have an outside chance of catching Orlando for the sixth seed.
Stoudemire, who later Friday declared himself to be pain free, faced the basket, dribbled, pivoted and finished a layup as Knicks Coach Mike Woodson announced that his starting power forward was healthy enough — after rehabbing a bulging disk in his back for nearly a month — to start Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It gives us another big-time player in the lineup,” Woodson said. “We’re solid now. When you have an Amar’e, a T.C. and a Melo on the front line, that’s as good as it gets, as far as I’m concerned. I just have to make it work. And I think I can do that.”
Woodson quickly brushed off any concern that Stoudemire’s return would harm the recent hot streak Anthony has enjoyed. He is averaging more than 30 points with single game totals of 43, 42 and 39 with Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin out.
“Don’t change anything — Melo’s just got to continue to do what he do,” Woodson said when asked if there would be an adjustment. He also pointed to the Knicks’ 6-1 record with Woodson as coach and Anthony and Stoudemire starting.
But without Stoudemire for the past 13 games, the Knicks have gone 9-4, with each of the four losses coming against playoff-bound Eastern Conference teams. Watching the most recent loss — an 8-point defeat last Sunday to the Miami Heat, whose big three outscored Anthony, 73-42 — Stoudemire felt needed.
“Carmelo’s a phenomenal player, but he can’t do it by himself,” Stoudemire said Friday. “I know the rest of the team is playing well, but for me to get back out there and be the dynamic scorer I am, alongside of him, that’d be a great 1-2 option.”
Perhaps deferring to Anthony’s hot streak, Stoudemire added: “Once teams double-team him, that’s when it’s time for me to step in and really give him a second option out there on the court offensively.”
But one of the best stretches of Anthony’s Knicks career, combined with stingy team defense, gave Stoudemire the luxury to take the time “to get in top shape” before he returned.
When Stoudemire injured his back in last spring’s playoff series against the Boston Celtics, the team described it as a muscle injury. According to the Knicks, the magnetic resonance imaging scan that showed that injury also detected a minimal disk bulging, which was not symptomatic, and therefore was not announced at the time. That disk did not pose a problem until the bulge became more severe last month and began causing pain.
He credited the Knicks’ training staff, which he couldn’t take advantage of during the lockout, and an epidural injection for propelling his rehab this time.
“This one is much easier,” he said, comparing the injury to what he felt against the Celtics.
The symptoms, Stoudemire said, did not flare up until March 24 against Detroit, the last game he was healthy for. Now, nearly a month later, Stoudemire is back, alongside Anthony, with Landry Fields relegated to the bench.
Woodson cautioned against piling minutes on Stoudemire too soon, saying he would play about 20 minutes Friday night. It raised the question: Will four games be enough for Stoudemire to blend in, then stand out?
“I don’t know, but that’s all we got,” Woodson said. “And we’re going to have to make the best of it to get him back, absolutely.”
He added, “Him being back, that’s a plus.”