The had clawed their way to a 111-107 victory over the Bucks, tightening their hold on a postseason berth. Anthony had been dominant, with 32 points and 10 rebounds, despite injuries and foul trouble. A key supporting player, J. R. Smith, had come through with the game’s winning shot.
Over a strenuous seven days, the Knicks had pummeled the Orlando Magic, split a two-game set with the Chicago Bulls (their likely first-round opponent) and put down the Bucks (their greatest threat to a playoff appearance). Anthony grinned a little.
“I love this moment,” he said. “This is where it gets fun, fighting for a playoff spot, playoffs right around the corner, games that you have to win, going out there and being a part of that and actually winning those games. That’s the fun part.”
The Knicks (30-28) hold a two-game lead for the final playoff spot in the East, with eight games left to play. They have won six of nine games since losing Amar’e Stoudemire and 19 days ago, muting doubts about their depth and fortitude. Yet, as in a great episode of “Lost,” every question the Knicks answer simply triggers three more.
Most pertinent now: Can Anthony keep up his torrid scoring pace over the final eight games? Can Smith be the second option the Knicks so desperately need? Can they keep winning without a reliable point guard? Can their banged-up frontcourt hold up until Stoudemire returns from a back injury?
And, indeed, the greatest mystery: What happens when Stoudemire returns?
Anthony has thrived as an undersized power forward in Stoudemire’s absence, averaging 30 points in nine games — 10 points per game better than his average before Stoudemire went down.
Coach Mike Woodson has already declared that Stoudemire, once he is healthy, will reclaim his starting job at power forward. That means Anthony will return to small forward, where the defenders are generally quicker and better suited to guarding him. It also means that Stoudemire and Anthony will again be competing for scoring chances on the left side of the lane, where both prefer to operate.
Anthony and Stoudemire have been an awkward tandem since the moment that Anthony arrived last year. One could make a case that the Knicks would be stronger with Stoudemire playing off the bench. But that option does not appear to be on the table.
The Anthony-Stoudemire dynamic would not be as great a concern if the Knicks had Lin or another established, healthy playmaker to keep the offense balanced and humming. They do not.
Baron Davis is playing with neck, back and hamstring injuries and is limited on most nights to 25 minutes or less. His play often erodes as the game wears on, and he has trouble keeping up with younger, quicker guards.
Davis was benched for the fourth quarter in Milwaukee, and he played just 2 minutes 31 seconds in the final period a night earlier, in Chicago. He sat out most of the fourth quarter and overtime against the Bulls on Sunday. With no other alternatives, Woodson is now using the rookie Iman Shumpert, a combination guard, as his de facto point guard during crunch time.
The backup point guard situation is a mess. Toney Douglas seemed to get untracked last week in Orlando, but Woodson used him sparingly in the two games against the Bulls and did not play him at all against the Bucks. Instead, Shumpert played 42 minutes.
With Stoudemire out and Jared Jeffries limited by a knee injury, Woodson has few options in the frontcourt as well. He played Anthony for 41 minutes against the Bucks and Tyson Chandler for 39 minutes. In Chicago, Anthony logged 39 minutes and Chandler 37.
Jeffries had been an invaluable reserve, but he is now being held to 15 minutes per game, at the order of the team’s medical staff. (Woodson does not seem to have much confidence in Josh Harrellson, or at least not as much as Mike D’Antoni did.)
So the Knicks still have much to sort out over the final two weeks as they try to hold on to their playoff berth and, perhaps, improve their standing. The remaining schedule is equally divided between home and road games, and between playoff teams and lottery teams. The Knicks have very winnable games against Washington, the Nets, Cleveland and Charlotte. Their fate rests on how they play Miami, Boston, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Assuming the Knicks hold their ground, the same nagging questions will follow them right into the postseason, and into a first-round series in which they will be heavy underdogs against the Bulls or the Heat.
“We feel good about ourselves,” Anthony said Wednesday night before adding, “But it’s not over yet.”