INDIANAPOLIS — New York coach Mike Woodson believes whole-heartedly that Amare Stoudemire can make a difference against the Pacers.
He's big, strong, and, when healthy, a proficient scorer — three ingredients the Knicks can use Saturday night.
The problem is Stoudemire hasn't played in an NBA game in more than two months and will now try to work his way back into game shape during the Eastern Conference semifinals. It's a risky move, one Woodson insists is worth the gamble given the potential payoff of breaking a 1-1 series and reclaiming home-court advantage in Game 3 of this best-of-seven series as it shifts to Indianapolis.
“If I didn't think Amare was important to our team, then I wouldn't even consider that,” the Knicks coach said after Friday's practice. “But Amare can still play, and I think he proved that in the short time he was back this last time.”
On paper, it looks like a no-brainer.
Stoudemire gives the Knicks more scoring punch against one of the league's stingiest defenses and another big body against a Pacers team that led the NBA in rebounding during the regular season and has been the best in the playoffs, too.
What's the downside?
Without Stoudemire, limited to 29 games this season after surgeries on each knee, New York has still found ways to win. The Knicks clinched the second seed in the East and won their first playoff series in 13 years, including a 26-point win over Indiana in Game 2 to even this series.
And it's still not clear how effective Stoudemire can be. Woodson has already said he will limit his star forward to 10 or 15 minutes Saturday night, just long enough to force the team to change its rotations and potentially upset the chemistry of a group that's played pretty well during Stoudemire's absence.
Conventional wisdom suggests that putting a player like Stoudemire back in the lineup should provide an immediate boost. The Knicks agree.
“He gives us another scorer, gives us another big guy,” Knicks guard Raymond Felton said. “This is a big team we're playing against, so any time we can get one of our bigs back, especially with him because he's a great scorer, we know it's going to help us.”
But Indiana fans know that's not always the case.
Exhibit A came during the 1996 NBA playoffs. Near the end of the regular season, Reggie Miller fractured his eye socket and missed the first four games of the best-of-five, first-round series against Atlanta. He returned in Game 5, wearing goggles, and scored 29 points. But the Pacers, who had figured out how to win without Miller, got out of sync and wound up losing the decisive game 89-87.
Exhibit B came during the 2007 NFL playoffs. Colts fans figured a rougher than usual season would be resolved when Peyton Manning got sure-handed receiver Marvin Harrison back for an AFC Divisional Round game. Instead, after sitting out three months with an injury, Harrison fumbled the ball the first time he was hit. The defending Super Bowl champs lost 28-24 to a San Diego team that finished the game without its starting quarterback or No. 1 running back.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel nearly faced a similar choice in late March when the Pacers appeared to be struggling and injured swingman Danny Granger was still trying to recover from a left knee injury. He was asked then about letting Granger play his way into shape during the playoffs. Vogel indicated then that it wouldn't be an ideal situation. About a week later, Granger had surgery on his left knee and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
Indiana's players understood the reasoning.
“I don't think it's something easy to do,” Pacers point guard George Hill said when asked about dealing with rustiness. “You have to get back into a rhythm and in shape. It takes you five minutes to get out of shape, but probably a year to get in shape.”
Trying to do that during the pressure-packed playoffs, Hill acknowledged, only makes the process of fitting in that much tougher.
“Definitely so. Your team had a rhythm and things like that and things are flowing,” Hill said.
If Stoudemire does return Saturday night, as expected, he will join a team that is busting with confidence.
The Knicks shot better in Game 2, were more productive inside and went toe-to-toe with the Pacers' big men. Defensively, New York held Indiana scoreless for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter and seized control with a 30-2 run, winning its most lopsided playoff game since April 24, 1992.
“I'm not going to risk what we've been doing, but I am going to play him, just to see where he is in terms of, I think if he is where he needs to be,” Woodson said of Stoudemire. “He didn't play big minutes the first go around before he got hurt and his minutes will definitely be limited this go around.”
New York's even bigger star, NBA scoring champ Carmelo Anthony, has promised neither he nor the Knicks will back down from the physical Pacers.
Not now, and certainly not with Stoudemire around to help out.
The Pacers wouldn't expect anything less.
“Our defense is designed to put our guys in position to stay home on shooters,” Vogel said. “In terms of Amare, if you close your eyes or blink on Amare Stoudemire, he's dunking on you. It's just going to have to heighten our alertness on those guys.”