“I couldn’t play dead right now in a movie if I was asked to,” Baron Davis said, but he was smiling and laughing a nervous laugh as he said it.
His timing is off. His stamina is iffy. A few passes did miss their intended targets. But there were moments of grace and artistry, too, in Davis’s first and long-anticipated scrimmage as a member of the Knicks. He hit Amar’e Stoudemire in stride and found Tyson Chandler at the rim, showing the court vision and deft touch that once made him an All-Star.
“His creativity alone is something special,” Stoudemire said afterward, adding, “Once he gets back out there, the game definitely becomes easier for all of us.”
That moment cannot come soon enough for the , with their offense and their esprit de corps simultaneously eroding. Davis could solve a lot of problems, if his body is willing.
Before Monday, it had been nine months since Davis had been a basketball court, because of a herniated disk that had him contemplating retirement. He signed with the Knicks in December and began an aggressive rehabilitation program that is reaching its moment of truth.
Davis could join the lineup by the end of the week if all goes well, although neither he nor team officials are offering any predictions. Coach wants to put Davis through a few more scrimmages to get him prepared.
“When they tell me I’m looking good and Coach feels like I’m looking all right and I won’t get out there and hurt the team, then we’ll be able to make that judgment,” Davis said. “Right now, it’s a first step.”
The Knicks open a four-game trip at Charlotte on Tuesday, but Davis is not expected to be in uniform.
“It’s going to take a little while for him to get his mojo back,” D’Antoni said.
It is hard to overstate just how badly the Knicks need Davis in the lineup. Entering Monday, they ranked and despite the presence of the elite scorers Stoudemire and .
Their woes begin in the backcourt, which may be the worst in the league. Iman Shumpert, a promising but impulsive rookie, took the point guard job after Toney Douglas played his way out of it, and Mike Bibby has tried to fill in the gaps. The Knicks tried to turn Anthony into a playmaking point forward, with mostly dismal results.
Davis, who has , is the only Knicks guard who can bring order to the offense. His pick-and-roll play will mean better shots for Stoudemire and Chandler. Anthony will be free to concentrate on scoring. Shumpert can become the high-energy sixth man the Knicks so desperately need, strengthening a weak bench.
“I know I can definitely help,” Davis said.
Davis also has the stature to hold Anthony and Stoudemire accountable when they stray from the offense, which has devolved into a muddle of isolation play. Anthony is the primary culprit, going 35 for 105 from the field over the last four games. He was booed in , his former team.
After that loss, in which , Anthony openly questioned his own play, wondering aloud if he needed to shoot less and pass more. By Monday, the feeling had passed.
“I was just beating myself up,” Anthony said. “If I’d have made some of them shots, then I probably wouldn’t have said that.” He added: “I got to play basketball. I can’t worry about what somebody else is thinking about me.”
So Davis becomes the latest in a long line of supposed Knicks saviors, his bad back and his checkered résumé notwithstanding.
It may take time for Davis to acclimate to the lineup and to regain his conditioning. He kindly pleaded for fans to be patient. But he could not contain his excitement Monday, saying, “Once our offense catches up with our defense, we’re going to be unstoppable.”
A little exuberance is understandable, given where Davis has been, mentally and emotionally, over the last few years. He spent two and a half mostly miserable seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, battling injuries and weight issues, before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last February. He finished the season strong, but the back pain made Davis wonder if he had a future in the N.B.A.
“Two, three months ago, I was really contemplating and thinking about retiring and just asking to be taken care of so I could be able to walk, walk straight or even work out or jog,” he said.
No one will be happier to have Davis on the court than D’Antoni, whose once-fluid offense has suffered without a true point guard, and whose job may depend on a quick turnaround. In Davis, D’Antoni will have a playmaker and a devoted supporter. Davis called D’Antoni “a coach that I love” and said he “always wanted an opportunity to play for him.”
So, to wit, Davis must save the offense, save the season and save the coach.
“There’s a lot of expectations,” he said chuckling, “expectations that I’ve never had in my career. But I’m up for the challenge. I know that I love playing this game.”