When the New York Knicks beat the Toronto Raptors at a sold-out Air Canada Centre on Friday night, there was something noticeably different about them. We've become accustomed to what the 2013-14 Knicks are -- a mediocre mess of a team -- but fans were treated to something else in Toronto.
Something we haven't really seen in years:
Watch that again, if you have to, because it really happened. That's Amar'e Stoudemire, 31-year-old Knicks forward, slamming home a huge dunk late in the fourth quarter of an NBA game. After playing over 30 minutes. In 2014.
If you wanted to pile up all of the unfortunate things that have buried the Knicks in the standings this season, Stoudemire's resurgence might be the one thing propping it all up. Carmelo Anthony is obviously still The Man, racking up points and doing his thing, but for the first time that many of us can remember, Amar'e is looking like Amar'e again.
In that Friday win over Toronto, Stoudemire played 40 minutes and finished the game with 24 points and 11 rebounds. The minutes and points are both season highs; Amar'e has not seen this much action since the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
It's a development that really shouldn't be understated. The Knicks are an aging, mediocre team with serious cap issues, a dearth of draft picks and ownership that may or may not know what it's doing. Phil Jackson has arrived, but nobody really knows what that means. A resurgent Stoudemire, on the other hand, gives the team a genuinely useful piece instead of an eight-figure sinkhole.
And much of it can be attributed to the consistent playing time. Earlier in the season, Stoudemire complained about the minutes limit placed on him by coaches, telling ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
"It's making me look like my game is gone or that I don't have game anymore because when you play five minutes, it's just tough to really get in a rhythm."
Over the past six weeks, Stoudemire has averaged nearly 30 minutes a game. Other than a blowout victory over the Utah Jazz, he's seen at least 20 minutes in his last 18 games, with 10 games of 30-plus. It's the most consistent playing time he's had in years, the result of myriad knee injuries and subsequent setbacks.
He's not simply logging the minutes just to prove a point, either. The results haven't really shown up on the floor yet, where the Knicks still seem to play better when he's on the bench, but the other numbers speak for themselves. Since Amar'e started getting consistent playing time in early March, he's averaging 16.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field. Even if he's not strong defensively, he's showing there's a clear place for his offense on the team.
That's something the Knicks haven't really expected from Stoudemire over the past year-plus. After all those injuries, it seemed easy to assume the former All-Star would be destined to finish his career stumbling to the finish line, collecting massive paychecks without ever delivering the performances expected of him. Instead, he's worked hard to get back into shape, and now he's showing the world he doesn't need to be flying over guys to be a quality player.
In all likelihood, Amar'e will never again by the guy averaging 20-plus a night and leading the highlight packages, because so much of that game depended on his superlative athleticism. He doesn't really have that anymore, something you're reminded of every time he doesn't explode at the rim like he did against the Raptors on Friday. But he's still out there scoring efficiently, and if he can get defenses to think about him and react to his presence, that's not worth $20 million, but it makes him awfully useful.
At this point, if Amar'e can be that kind of offensive-minded piece -- with the occasional flash of a thunderous past, like we saw Friday night -- New York should be rather happy. For a guy with two bad knees, that's a rather incredible turnaround.