Stoudemire entered this first-round series against the with injury concerns over how he would respond from a late-season ankle injury. An impressive opener alleviated those concerns. But back spasms arose during Game 2, forcing Stoudemire to miss the second half of a narrow loss.
On Friday, Stoudemire labored through 33 ineffective minutes with 7 points and 1 rebound. His most frequent movement came when he watched Ray Allen (32 points) and Paul Pierce (38) drop shot after from the sky and into the basket.
“The last few days, every step hurt,” Stoudemire said. “Every step I took, I felt it in my back. I have never had a strained muscle in my back. I had a hard time putting my socks and shoes on. I had a hard time sitting.”
On Stoudemire’s list of career injuries — from microfracture knee surgery to a partially detached retina — the back spasms do not rank in the top tier. But they arrived at a most inopportune juncture after a relatively injury-free season in which Stoudemire lifted the Knicks to their first playoff berth in seven seasons while assuming the role of locker room leader and pivotal on-court presence.
When the Knicks clinched their playoff spot, sought out Stoudemire in the locker room to thank him for accepting the burden of transforming a diminished franchise.
Late Friday evening, D’Antoni looked to console Stoudemire after Game 3 ended in the same fashion as so many recent regular-season games: boos, a blowout loss and dire playoff hopes.
“It’ll be tough, but he’ll be ready,” D’Antoni said. “It’s tough. The guy has been on a bed for two days and I just marvel that he gets out and he wanted to play.”
Moments later, Stoudemire arrived at the postgame podium and sounded less optimistic about Sunday’s Game 4. He will most likely play; just as likely, the pain will still be there.
“There’s no way I will be 100 percent by Sunday,” Stoudemire said. “Tonight, I knew I wasn’t 100 percent, but I also knew my teammates needed me out there.”
He sat in a chair and answered questions, an improvement over Game 2, when the pain flared during warm-ups. After the game, Stoudemire answered questions while standing.
On Friday, Stoudemire took eight shots, made two, and was a team-worst minus-32 on the court. As Allen swirled around screens like a sports car hugging a tight curve, Pierce found his sweet spots and Rajon Rondo handed out 20 assists, Stoudemire could not offer much help.
He warmed up before the game, stretched and gave reporters a thumbs up as he went back to the locker room. The moment was less dramatic, important or impactful than Willis Reed’s return in Game 7 of the 1970 finals, but he still gave the Knicks an emotional lift when the game started.
“I was very ginger; I didn’t really want to draw any contact,” he said. “Quick moves weren’t quite there. I couldn’t make any sharp, quick moves. It bothered my elevation and driving to the basket.”
With just under nine minutes left, Stoudemire rose from his seat with an oversized cushion similar to the one used by Coach , who has back problems, and reported for duty. For one of the few times this season, his presence had no impact. D’Antoni removed Stoudemire and with 3 minutes 45 seconds remaining and the Knicks trailing, 106-84.
The series is presenting D’Antoni with plenty of second-guessing. Shawne Williams scored a team-high 17 points and will replace Stoudemire in the lineup if the pain is intolerable or if D’Antoni judges him ineffective. But as long as Stoudemire is willing to play, D’Antoni will probably be behind the player who is the largest reason for the end of the Knicks’ playoff drought.
“His heart is in a great place,” D’Antoni said of Stoudemire and reiterated hopefully: “He gave us everything he’s got. His body is a little bit dead, but he’ll be ready on Sunday.”