- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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For those NBA fans who love stats, allow me to present a few:
• 36 and 5.
• 33 and 15.
• 41 and 7.
Those are just a handful of the numbers in points and rebounds posted during Amare Stoudemire's team-record nine consecutive 30-point games for the Knicks.
Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
And it would be even more impressive if those numbers belonged to Stoudemire.
Instead, those are the stats the opposing team's big men managed to accumulate on the road in Madison Square Garden while chants of MVP were being thrown the $100 million man's way by the home crowd. Not to be the Grinch about this, because Stoudemire has been far and away the most consistent of the big-name free agents playing on a new team this season. But it seems that while he was busy getting his, so was his man. Or at least someone he spent some time guarding.
Those numbers aren't attached to the names you might expect, either, such as Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan or Dwight Howard. Instead, they were put up by Brook Lopez (36 points, 5 rebounds on Nov. 30), Kevin Love (33 points, 15 rebounds on Dec. 6), and Andrea Bargnani (41 points, 7 rebounds on Dec. 8) -- talented players, but not exactly the kind you'd expect to play "STAT" to a draw.
In Phoenix, Stoudemire infamously called Lamar Odom's 19-and-19 performance against his Suns in Game 1 of last year's Western Conference finals "lucky."
"I focused so much on [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum to where he snuck in there and got 19 boards," he said.
I wonder, then, who had his attention when Love went for 31 and 31 in Minnesota on Nov. 12, making NBA history?
While I'm sure Knickerbockers fans are happy just to see their team over .500, I can't help but notice that lesser-light players such as the Raptors' Amir Johnson and the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao have had the best nights of their careers against the Knicks this year.
Did all these "lucky" dudes do their damage exclusively against "STAT"? Of course not. But
"He's never been known as a defender," says a veteran East Coast scout. "I will give him credit for growing as a player, but he still doesn't impact the game physically like he could. As long as they are winning, I think you have to take the good with the bad. But if for any reason they stop beating bad teams -- and let's face it: For the most part, that's all the Knicks are doing -- then eventually fans are going to notice how easy it is to score against him."
Stoudemire is a smart guy, and I admire the way he overcame a rough childhood and, against all odds, has become one of the most exciting players in the game today. I still get excited about his 37-points-per-game average against Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs during the 2005 conference finals. The dude has always been a handful on offense. He is the Knicks' best player, and they are entertaining for a change and will be winners to a certain point. But until the player he is on offense consistently shows up on defense, too, New York will never be a legitimate title contender. Not if he's their centerpiece. Showing up in big moments is what All-Star-caliber players are supposed to do. Making players disappear is what champions do.
That's just history talking.
Kobe locks up. Wade locks up. KG locks up. Duncan locks up. Jordan locked up. Hakeem locked up. Bill Russell has championship rings on his toes because he was all about locking up.
"The little success the Knicks are having right now is all relative," said one East Coast executive. "It's based on how bad they've been over the past 10 years, so the local media there is hyping it more than they should.
"Depth, toughness and defense is what makes you a real contender, and they don't possess those three things."
Stoudemire played on Suns teams that led the league in possessions for five consecutive years, and yet he's never averaged 10 boards a game; while David Lee, the man he replaced in New York, is working on his fourth double-double season for his third different coach. The point is that some numbers reflect a team's system, and some reflect a player's desire. If "STAT worked as hard on the ugly stuff the way Lee or Ben Wallace or Dwight Howard do, then Phoenix might have gotten over the hump and made it to the NBA Finals during his time there. It's not entirely his fault the Suns didn't get there, but his penchant for giving up "lucky" games certainly didn't help.
When he came to the Knicks, he said New York is back. He must've meant back to the 1980s, when they had a high-scoring Bernard King and a soft defense. No way would the Charles Oakley/Patrick Ewing teams of the 1990s let a rookie go off for 44 and 15 against them the way Blake Griffin did back in November.
No, in order to back up bold statements like that, "STAT" has to decide he's going to limit the number of big games big men have against them.
Considering the history of tension between Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni from their days in Phoenix together, it seems a shift like that in New York will have to come from within the player, not imposed by the coach. At least not this coach.
Otherwise, the Knicks will be the East Coast version of the Stoudemire/D'Antoni Suns -- near the top in points scored, near the top in points given up. And ultimately, nowhere near the top at the end of the postseason.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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